Mon | Sep 25, 2017

Imani Duncan-Price | The productivity revolution and Jamaica's household workers

Published:Sunday | June 12, 2016 | 6:00 AM
Don Wehby, chief exeutive officer of the GraceKennedy Group, sandwiched by Nicola Lawson (left), vice-president of the Jamaica Household Workers’ Union, and Elaine Duncan, 2014 winner of the Grace Kennedy/Heather Little-White Household Worker Award.
Shirley Pryce, President of the Jamaica Household Workers' Union.
Imani Duncan-Price
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Two Friday evenings ago, in Jamaica, a group of 42 women and one man made a critical start on the well-needed productivity revolution in Jamaica. At the same time, they strategised and designed plans emblematic of a modern-day trade union. This was a session with the executive of the Jamaica Household Workers Union (JHWU), a business strategist, a chartered accountant, a payroll specialist and a recent college graduate. The room brimmed with energy, possibilities and power.

It has become accepted that it is the inequality of productivity that explains the difference between rich and poor countries. So this Friday night was consequential in Jamaica's quest for inclusive growth. Over the 51-year period from 1961 to 2012, output per worker or labour productivity in Jamaica grew at an average rate of 0.3 per cent. This compares to labour productivity of 1.1 per cent, 1.6 per cent, 1.3 per cent, and 1.9 per cent for Barbados, the United States, Canada and Trinidad and Tobago, respectively. Breaking it down simply, if Jamaica is to grow sustainably and with meaningful incomes, productivity has to grow.

Doing so requires true partnership across all persons, all stakeholders in society. For while government is responsible for creating the environment in which businesses operate, long-term productivity growth can only be realised by enterprise, innovation, skills and investment. It happens at the individual level, the departmental/unit level, the business level, the sectoral/industry level, and the national level.

On the individual level, something that has an impact on productivity is how Jamaicans use and treat time. Studies show that the simple but key indicators of 'being on time', 'starting on time' are traits of productive countries. What we do with our time speaks to the output we create. Think about this in the context of cumulative individual actions that manifest as part of Jamaican culture. Perhaps we can individually and collectively choose to change that element of Jamaican culture. Next time you are headed to a meeting, or open up your wholesale shop or stall, ask yourself, 'Am I on time? Do I have a plan for my day to get the most impactful things done? Am I living a culture of productivity and making a positive difference in my country?'

At the unit level, in this case at the level of the JHWU, 96 per cent of the attendees were there before time, so the meeting started on time. The meeting agenda was focused on initiatives that included: 1. improving the skill levels of the members of the Union so that the members could negotiate higher salaries, 2. ensuring financial sustainability of the Union. A third initiative - providing welfare support to members who typically earn minimum wage and have a very hard time dealing with life emergencies for themselves, such as health or death in their families - will be addressed in a future article.

To understand how that seminal Friday-night planning session happened, it is important to understand background elements of the Union and its leadership. The JHWU, which started as an association in 1991 with the support of the Bureau of Women's Affairs under then Minister Portia Simpson Miller, marks its 25th anniversary this month. Started by a rebel woman with a vision, Shirley Pryce was once a housekeeper herself. Her employer at the time encouraged her to pursue other work given how driven she was, and indeed still is. Today, she is not only the president of the JHWU who has a full-time job as a professional, but also holds her master's in labour law from the Penn State University. The passionate members of the executive of the JHWU who met on that Friday night - Edward McGowan, Analda Green, Stephanie Brown, Elaine Duncan and Joan Steer - and the many others present all embodied the same energy, drive, sense of self and self-respect as Shirley.

Recognising that their work, given its association with what is deemed a woman's traditional role and automatic responsibilities in the home, encompasses domestic tasks to which little economic value is attached, they decided to look at how they could improve their skills and value-added services so they could negotiate better wages and working conditions. Most are literate, but have very little education, and only a few have any formal certification. Based on assessment of skills needed and quality standards, the Union developed a curriculum that has been approved by HEART NTA. So the first initiative is to establish a training institute that will hold classes in the evenings and on weekends so the members can develop themselves professionally in the areas of housekeeping, food preparation, nutrition specialisation, child care, hair care, leadership development, negotiation and worker's rights. While the courses will be free for the 5,700 members across the 11 chapters of the Union, employers of household helpers (who are not members) or other helpers themselves may also participate and benefit by paying for classes.

In the context of productivity, as the JHWU members are improving their skill levels utilising the same labour (themselves), their output will be increased. Labour productivity is on the up! Given the integral role of unions overall in increasing Jamaica's productivity, it would be ideal for them to partner with the companies their members work with and determine the specific initiatives and training that would increase output per worker, then pursue those relentlessly.

 

VALUE-ADDED HOUSEHOLD SERVICES

 

The second initiative of the JHWU will be to establish an employment agency. With the expected improved skill sets of members through the training institute and the growing market need for families to have good, quality support in the homes, the Union can be an effective player in addressing the labour market gap and charge fees for these services. Not only would they recommend persons for housekeeping and/or child care jobs to be well trained, but the agency would have background checks on file as well as referrals so that effective matches could be made to meet the employer's need. In addition to significantly reducing the challenges for employers in finding suitable persons, the Union would also handle payroll and statutory deductions such as contributions to the National Insurance Scheme (NIS).

This combination is to create a win-win solution for all. The productivity of the employers go up in this process as their time is better spent on other activities, and with effective household management support, their day-to-day output should also increase (assuming they focus on productive endeavours). And importantly, the well-being of the Union members, and thus their productivity, also increases as they are better paid, have NIS to look to in their retirement and are respected in their roles. This will not happen overnight. It is a process being pursued within the context of the vision of "Decent Work for Domestic Workers'.

Each person, each business, each non-governmental organisation, each government entity must be a part of the productivity revolution for Jamaica to truly grow in an inclusive way. The Fullticipation Foundation will continue to work in partnership with the JHWU and others to do its part to make that a reality in Jamaica.

Imani Duncan-Price is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and Development Consultant.