Orville Taylor | Portia: poor people’s champion?
Of all of the many commentators who are singing platitudes or slinging mud at Portia Simpson Miller, or patting her on her back, I can speak of her commitment to the poor and working classes. Indeed, there is no doubt in my mind that she has an enduring love for the poor and disenfranchised. And here let me unambiguously declare that this is not a tongue-in-cheek reference to the sometimes unkind remarks that she loves them so much that she keeps a constituency full of supporters in a constant state of abject poverty. Her heart is deeply embedded in the poorer strata of society.
My question that I have to ask and answer for the historians and social scientists is not where her heart is, but, more important, where she put her hands.
It is the same kind of blasphemy I have to defend myself against when I touch iconic and historical figures. Indeed, my own standard, which I hope society and history will judge me by, is my tag line on Hotline which I host on Wednesdays on RJR94FM, “Are we both talk and substance?”
For example, I might be committing sacrilege in suggesting that Bounty Killer - another man in black and the other Miss Ivy’s last son - has done far more for Jamaican artistes than Bob Marley. How many entertainers did Marley and his multiple progeny ‘buss’? Is there a musical or major training institute or factory that has led to the economic and social uplift of hundreds or thousands of people?
Public figures, especially those who earn incomes from what people think of them, can influence their constituents’ lives in myriad ways.
However, these fall into two main categories. First, it has to do with being inspirational. Being a sociologist, I am fully aware of how a single person like an Oprah Winfrey can influence an entire generation of young women and men. Arthur Wint’s Olympic gold in 1948 and the Helsinki quartet in 1952 ultimately influenced Asafa Powell to break the world record and to make Usain Bolt know that he could stay at home and make it here. And, of course, internationally, Martin Luther King woke up America’s consciousness, while Marcus Mosiah Garvey fomented the liberation of black people globally, including present-day icons such as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama.
But there is a big difference between being a mere public figure, however popular he or she may be, and an elected official. When poor people run behind politicians on the campaign trail and then dip their fingers in that nasty ink, they do so because the politician makes either explicit or implicit promises to pass laws or implement policies to change their lives.
That Portia influenced and inspired thousands of poor black people’s children is beyond question. The real question is, did she not only raise her fists in supporting the poor, or did she back it up with policies and laws?
For me, given that 50 per cent of persons surveyed as poor were also measured as employed, she should have focused on the working poor. It is this group that Michael Manley built the base of his socialism on in the 1970s and remade the People’s National Party (PNP). Furthermore, multiple bodies of research from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and academics like Noel Cowell, Anne Crick and I have shown that the empowerment of people who go out to work is a solid predictor of productivity and economic growth.The ILO has pushed the concept of decent work and the CARICOM ministers of labour in 1998 committed themselves to doing so.
As indicated in an earlier column, when she went to the Ministry of Labour in 1989, my expectation, given the anti-worker environment of the previous eight years, was that she would have pushed legislation to make the lives of workers better via new or enhanced laws. She had a good template to work from and build upon the legacy of the founding fathers and, in particular, Michael.
Some of the deliverables, the low-hanging fruits, would have involved improving the equal rights of women in the labour market; increasing maternity protection; pushing the sexual-harassment legislation that has been discussed since the early 1990s; advancing legislation to address HIV/AIDS at the workplace; and tweaking the Labour Relations and Industrial Act (LRIDA) to allow individual non-unionised workers to have access to the Industrial Disputes Tribunal.
On the issue of social protection, the shelter under the redundancy legislation and the need for a severance payment fund and perhaps unemployment fund have long been recommended.
During the 1990s, she took the National Insurance Scheme to record levels of capitalisation and the work towards PATH in the very early 2000s began when she was labour minister.
HARD TO ARGUE
Nevertheless it is hard to argue from the data that a significant impact was made on employment levels. And, importantly, the poverty figures remained as a red mark. Also, the scourge of contract work will be a stain on Manley’s legacy.
True, she saw the flexitime legislation passed during her tenure. However, it was much more watered down than was originally proposed and it ignored critical observations of the ILO.
As argued in my book, Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets: A Century of Betrayal of the Jamaican Class’, the PNP, under both Mr Patterson and Portia, ceased being the distinctly workers’ party and looked very different from the JLP. Without a coherent ideology and almost no reference to its socialist DNA, it is hard to argue that the PNP was under both Patterson and Portia, a truly pro-poor party.
To cap it off, the end of Portia’s tenure saw the demise of the National Workers Union (NWU) and the uncertain identity of the white-collar union affiliate, The Union of Clerical Administrative and Supervisory Employees. At present, to the chagrin of the pro-Manley Jamaicans, no representative of the PNP’s union is in any of the houses of parliament.
Yet, Portia’s greatness is more about who she inspired and made feel empowered. She might not have pushed the laws to give power to the people. However, she made thousands of poor Jamaicans feel ‘smaddified’.
- Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.