Wed | Dec 13, 2017

Orville Taylor | Workplace as incubator for crime

Published:Sunday | October 29, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Perhaps it is too easy to see, that is why the policymakers have been so blind that even when they close their eyes, they see it better.

As far back at the 1980s when I was a junior conciliator/mediator in the Ministry of Labour, I made the then non-academic observation that if we wanted to have a better society, we must focus on the set of people who we expect to carry the burden. It is simple logic, the most important part of the car is not the driver, or the nut behind the wheel. As important as he is, nothing is more vital to the running of the car than the engine.

Workers are the engine of society and they need to be treated as such. Drop all the analogies about oil change and spark plugs and lubrication. I am speaking about the fuel that makes it run efficiently and the mileage.

Thus, the issue is productivity and the other set of social outcomes that we are seeking. If we want a better workplace and a better-performing society, we have to start with the workers.

 

SIMPLE SCIENCE

 

This is not some socialist rant from the past. It is simply good behavioural and management science.

People will do the right thing when we make them feel as if they matter, and it is not about the level of income they receive. Do not be mistaken. I do not subscribe to the notion that money is the root of all evil. That is some wool being pulled over the eyes of people by tricksters who want to use the scriptures to exploit workers, whom they wish to underpay.

Money ranks third behind water and oxygen. It is critical for surviving in society. However, it is not a compensation for someone who is being mistreated, abused and devalued, whether in a relationship, household or in the workplace.

As far back as 1975, Ruth Johnston, a researcher with the International Labour Organization (ILO), made the observation that when workers were surveyed about their levels of satisfaction, they placed income as low as third and fourth among the reasons why they were satisfied or dissatisfied at the workplace.

Later studies were conducted internationally, and our own Carl Stone, of blessed memory, conducted a Workers' Attitude Survey in 1982. Here the evidence was pretty strong that Jamaican workers do not feel as if they matter to their employers and, as a result, are not keen on delivering high levels of productivity.

In a still very underrated but pivotal study, Ken Carter in 1997 wrote an amazing set of findings that showed that only 24 per cent of Jamaican employees described themselves as being motivated. Therefore, an overwhelming 76 per cent of them were demotivated, and of that group, 40 per cent were seen as either marginally 'retrievable' or 'irretrievable'. Only 60 per cent of Jamaican workers, 20 years ago, were reachable, for whatever reason.

Flash forward another 20 years and it is pretty much same old, same hole. Tomorrow, the University of the West Indies' Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work will partner with the Jamaica Business Development Corporation to host an Employee Engagement Conference. Experts and practitioners, both local and international, are coming together to explore the dimensions of workers and their attitudes to work and the factors that lead in the direction.

Remarkably, one of the major findings of a very recent survey is that that same magical 60 per cent of the employed workforce is 'disengaged'. They do not feel part of the processes of operations at work and, thus, are not motivated.

This is dangerous stuff, because my age-old contention, like Carter and Stone, is that you have to make your workers feel that they matter. For me, the issue is not simply about some concept called engagement. That is doubtless, extremely important. However, workers will feel valuable when they are in an environment where they are employed under what the ILO considers 'decent' working conditions.

 

DECENT WORK

 

Of course, decent work involves a liveable wage. Yet, it must also include equal treatment at work, and freedom from forced labour, freedom to join trade unions and to have them bargain collectively on workers' behalf. This level of worker protection is the axis upon which our political parties and, thus, our democracy were framed. For me, decent work must also comprise the protection from arbitrary dismissal when workers choose to stand up for their rights at work.

Workers will not feel loyal when they are of the view that the employer can tell them, "You are fired!" for no legitimate reason and without consequences. Some of my own research showed that there was a direct connection between the decreasing levels of worker productivity, on the one hand,, and the increasing fragility of the workers' contracts as measured by number of dismissals between the late 1990s and 2012, on the other hand.

Nonetheless, here is a frightening correlation. In 2000, the data seemed to point in the direction of a strong relationship between the rise in 'indecent work' and the increase in crime. There is more to this analysis, but the logic is clear. If you disengage workers, they will produce at a lower level. Lower productivity leads to lower profits, worsening working conditions and less-favourable contracts.

Firing a worker really involves firing a household, and in particular, the young sub-adult male. There is also another side. Has anyone ever looked at the relationship between spousal abuse (and, ultimately, murder) and increasing economic marginalisation at the workplace?

Enough said.