Sickout or copout?
If I felt that my employer was shoving stuff down my throat that I don't want to eat, I would become sick, too. After all, despite being a pesco-vegetarian, I would react very strongly if any fish was being stuffed into my body against my will. Worse, if it is something else that I do not eat at all. Labour relations is a difficult field, and despite the misconception of Government that we are having a period of unprecedented industrial peace, there can be nothing further from the truth.
It is this nonsensical view of Government, over the years, that fewer industrial disputes and strikes mean that there is greater industrial and social peace in society. Perhaps it is for that reason that the Government thinks that labour matters are so unimportant that it can now have a well-intentioned but part-time minister. Let me take this opportunity to remind the Government of the findings and predictions I consistently made since the late 1990s and which are hidden in full view in my columns and my recent book, Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets: A Century of Betrayal of the Jamaican Working Class.
History and research demonstrate that where workers feel respected and protected at work, they have increased levels of productivity. Second, the pursuit of a labour policy that increases the size of the working poor is a disastrous path and is a major contributor to social violence. Simply put, treating workers poorly, contrary to the old Michael Manley-type People's National Party (PNP) policies of the 1970s, is bad business and it puts severe pressure on the resources of Jamaican law enforcement.
It is, therefore, quite ironic that Jamaican police, like other public servants, are put in the situation of double jeopardy. On the one hand, they have the overwhelming task of dealing with the constant battle against crime and violence. Yet, they are also being subject to the same set of circumstances and policies that have fuelled the crime rate over the past two decades. Worse, their direct employer, the minister of national security, Peter Bunting, understands just how difficult it is to equip, protect, and pay a set of Jamaicans whose job not only puts them in the line of fire, but reduces their health profile and life expectancy. Indeed, most of our cops die before 69.
Bunting's task is the more difficult because he is part of an administration that is squeezing his resources, and worse, the finance ministry controls his purse strings and provides the personnel who are negotiating with the Jamaica Police Federation (JPF). How does he keep the rank and file, the 10,000-strong majority of the Jamaica Constabulary Force, placated? Worse, the Police High Command, mindful of the knife which sticks nanny goat and ewe alike, has to tread carefully as it handles a crisis that exploded last week.
Here are some facts. Something between 1,000 and 2,000 police personnel were absent from work daily between Tuesday and Thursday. The purported reason for their absence was illness. As far as I know, the majority of them have submitted medical certificates. I have never been a fan of sickouts because they are disguised industrial action. For me, it is like playing golf with missing balls; because if I am withdrawing my labour or anything else, because of unfulfilled demands or desires, I am saying that is what I am doing. Then I pump my chest and clench my fist without backing down. True, Sgt Raymond Wilson, chairman of the JPF, has been in a militant mood, but up to now, he has not said that the members have taken industrial action. What I do know is that I was at their conference and saw a militant mood, which was cross, 'hangry' and miserable!
For all his stridency, Wilson, fully aware of Section 69 of the Jamaica Constabulary Force Act, would have bitten his tongue in recommending industrial action. Indeed, the section explicitly states, "If any person causes, or attempts to cause ... disaffection amongst the members of the force, or induces, or attempts to induce ... to induce any member of the Force to withhold his services ... shall be guilty of a misdemeanour."
Police neither have a right nor freedom to strike or absent themselves from duty except on medical grounds. The Police Services Regulations 1961 and Police Book of Rules state that police who "... absents himself from duty without leave for more than forty-eight hours ... shall be held automatically to have vacated his position and shall be liable to summary dismissal".
INDUSTRIAL ACTION ORNOT?
Moreover, in interpreting Section 2 of the Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act, the 1980 Alcan and National Workers Union case definitively determined sickouts to be industrial action. Yet, if they are not on industrial action, they cannot be 'injuncted' to cease something that they are not doing.
However, given the fact that the JPF was left hanging and ignored as it pressed its demand to the Government, it is difficult to blame them if they drop arms. Employers and politicians must learn to treat workers as they would have liked to be treated in their position before their own 'smadification'.
Yet, going forward, the police managers have a hard task. Some persons were genuinely ill, and the 'supes' cannot assume that all absentees were malingerers. Each case will have to be dealt with individually, and it will be time-consuming. Unlike the Holiday with Pay Act, which doesn't apply to public servants, there is no explicit mechanism for the challenging of medical certificates. Their rejection by laymen is dangerous ground. The way forward is dialogue and respect.
I close with the advice from the Comrade leader when, as leader of the opposition, she said, in 2011 at a meeting in St James, "I am warning you. You are provoking the workers of Jamaica and there is nothing that can beat dialogue ... . When workers are not happy, the country cannot move forward. No country can succeed and prosper if workers do not feel that they are rewarded for their hard work."
- Dr Orville Taylor, senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host, is the 2013-14 winner of the Morris Cargill Award for Opinion Journalism. His just-published book, 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets', is now available at the UWI Bookshop. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.