Tue | Jul 16, 2019

Editorial | Calm dialogue on IDT, labour laws

Published:Sunday | February 24, 2019 | 12:32 AM

All things considered, the industrial relations environment in Jamaica is relatively stable, unlike the situation three or four decades ago when the atmosphere was often thick with the tension between firms and their workers and the trade unions that represent them.

These days, when disputes occur they are far less likely to be over negotiations for pay or conditions of work, than over procedural disagreements to protect workers’ rights.

Indeed, a study last year by Danny Roberts, head of the Hugh Lawson Shearer Trade Union Education Institute at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and Noel Cowell, lecturer at the Mona School of Business and Management, confirmed this trend.

A decade ago, they found, 30 per cent of labour disputes related to wages and conditions of employment. By 2017-18, that had plummeted to 10 per cent. Matters of representational rights hardly registered on the dial.

What, however, has rocketed, proportionately, accounting for 85 per cent of reported cases, are disagreements over termination and suspensions, which now account for upwards of half, and rising, of the matters that reach the Industrial Disputes Tribunal (IDT). And that, it appears, has opened, unless the situation is managed with care, a potentially fraught new frontier between labour and management.

The Government, and employers, too, should pay heed, lest the emerging situation becomes a drag on the economy, eroding the substantial gains made in recent years on the fiscal front and laying the foundation for sustainable growth.

We hardly need to guess the reasons for the state of Jamaica’s industrial relations scene. The most important factor was the passage, 44 years ago, of the Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act that codified the rights of workers and made recognition of trade unions obligatory. That, perhaps ironically, reduced disputes and tension. If all parties know their rights, they proceed accordingly.

Further, in recent decades, Jamaica has mirrored the global trend with declining membership in trade unions. Hardly 30 per cent of the labour force participates in them, driven, in part, no doubt, to new modes of employment that make unions less attractive.

THE PARADOX

But one paradox of this development is the increased numbers of non-unionised employees, including managers, going to the IDT, because of a change in the law a decade ago, allowing them so to do.

This is where the fault line is emerging.

Ten days ago, the island’s most powerful business groups – the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association and the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce – publicly complained about the fairness in the functioning of the IDT and called for a revamp of the Labour Code. Howard Mitchell, president of the PSOJ, made it clear that the intention was not to disenfranchise workers, but to bring clarity to the labour front, which small and medium-sized companies find expensive to traverse.

Since then, there have been several criticisms of the IDT by people aligned, or perceived so to be, with the private sector, which many people in the labour movement have chosen to interpret as an attack on the idea of the tribunal and an attempt to return workers’ rights to the pre-1975 situation.

Matters have not been helped by the rhetoric of some of the protagonists on either side.

This newspaper urges all parties to cool the rhetoric, and to begin a mature discussion of all the issues, within the rubric of the long-standing but seemingly stalled labour market reform project.

Indeed, 44 years is a relatively long time, so it is appropriate, as Dr Roberts suggested, that all the critical labour laws be reviewed.

Our proviso is that this should be done taking into account the market and economic changes wrought by globalisation and technology and the need for Jamaica to be competitive in this matrix.

Shahine Robinson, the labour minister, should urgently convene this discussion between the Government, private sector and workers and their representatives, before lines harden and dialogue becomes difficult.