Mon | Dec 11, 2017

Jaevion Nelson | Politicians must prioritise the working poor

Published:Monday | September 25, 2017 | 12:00 AM

People who are paid low wages are among the most abused in Jamaica. Their rights are taken for granted daily by their employers and supervisors who treat them unfairly and constantly threaten to fire them.

Remedies for redress and opportunities to negotiate fairer wages or increases and better working conditions are non-existent. Consequently, a significant number of people are forced to endure unending abuse and wallow in misery and disillusionment until they, hopefully, find an employer with a conscience. I have found this is particularly common among those working in the service industry, at hotels, restaurants, and bars, for example.

About two weeks ago, a friend was telling me about a woman working at a gas station whose young baby was terribly ill. She had no one to attend to her child. When she asked her boss for the time off to take care of her child, she was told not to return if she left.

On Twitter, a friend mentioned that at one of her favourite fast-food restaurants, the workers are only given 30 minutes for lunch. Apparently, this was recently increased from 20 minutes.

In a training workshop with health-care workers, one nurse spoke about a pregnant woman working at a fast-food restaurant where the staff is prohibited from taking their lunch into the kitchen. No accommodation was made for her. Her partner had to meet her each day with the fruits and vegetables she needed to consume, which she would have in his car.

Another friend shared about some co-workers who are paid low wages and are not provided with the required tools to do their job effectively.

In some companies, employees who work late are not assisted with transportation at nights. They have to find their way home in the wee hours of the morning in sometimes volatile communities. It is also not unusual that people do not get paid for overtime work.

We absolutely must do something to ensure the working poor can enjoy their rights and live in dignity. I can't imagine how difficult it must be for these individuals. Their resilience and endurance are most admirable.

 

LACK OF POLITICAL WILL

 

What I find most frightening is the seeming unconcern by many of us regarding the plight of the working poor. The lack of political will to introduce and enforce policies and laws which prioritise the interests and welfare of the working poor as a central component of our development plan is quite telling. It is most regrettable that there is hardly any protection for individuals who earn low wages. Their employers abuse their rights and wallow in the state's ineptitude to ensure they are protected.

It is important to note that although we are party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) from 1975, such considerations were not included in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms which was passed in April 2011.

Articles 6-9 of the ICESCR speak to the "right to work. The enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work, to form and join unions, for the promotion and protection of his economic and social interests and the right to social security." Dayton Campbell, one of the few advocating for the rights of the working poor, argues that "the rights of employed persons in Jamaica are safeguarded in a piecemeal fashion by a kaleidoscope of laws which, unfortunately, has gaps and loopholes in protection".

One wonders why our politicians, especially those who represent constituencies where a significant portion of their constituents are among the poorest and most vulnerable, have been so silent about these issues. Is it that people do not share their experiences with them and ask them to speak up on their behalf? Why is it that civil society, which is in large part supposed to be the voice of the people, so deafeningly silent as well? Why isn't the Government being held accountable to their obligations to protect, promote and fulfil their human-rights commitments? I'm certain it's not very hard to see that people are being terribly abused all over the country and are in dire need of representation.

As Campbell said, "We have to do away with the tendency to pay lip service to their needs, the politics of perception, the passiveness and cosmetic ways in which we attempt to address the issues they face, and move to action so we are better able to facilitate their full and meaningful development."

I urge the Government to put workers' rights on the legislative agenda for 2018. I believe this should be followed by consultations and research, led by the Economic Growth Council and human-rights and community-based groups and organisations, into the challenges people face and how they can be addressed. We cannot develop our country if only some of us are paid and treated fairly and have the full protection of the law.

- Jaevion Nelson is an advocate for human rights and social and economic justice. Send feedback to jaevion@gmail.com, jaevion@gmail.com or @jaevionn.