Sat | Dec 16, 2017

Khurt Fletcher | Contract labour: the bane of decent work

Published:Sunday | December 3, 2017 | 12:00 AMKhurt Fletcher
A security guard walks across the parking lot of Sagicor Bank in New Kingston on May 15. Security guards are generally placed on restrictive contracts with low pay and long hours.

Jamaica is a signatory to the International Labour Organization (ILO)'s decent work agenda convention that states that "decent work is employment which respects the fundamental rights of the human person as well as the rights of workers in terms of conditions of work safety and remuneration ... [and] respect for the physical and mental integrity of the worker in the exercise of his/her employment".

Decent work is founded on four pillars, as stated by the ILO: job creation, rights at work, social protection and social dialogue. As a nation with a stated vision of "being a place to live and work", it is important for labour practices in Jamaica to be reflective of this decent work agenda. Sadly, that is far from being the case.

An alarming employment trend has bloomed in our workspace in recent years, and employers have been rapidly eroding one of the key pillars of decent work, which is the 'social protection' element. This is the scourge of contract work.

Social protection at the workplace involves, but is not limited to, the need to enjoy tenure and job security, the right to have meaningful benefits such as pension and health benefits and adequate remuneration for a fair day's work. Contract work, when utilised and administered properly, is quite necessary, in some instances, for the sustenance of businesses and the protection of capital investments. However, in Jamaica, it is the abuse of the facility that has caused larger numbers of workers to become more and more impoverished and increasingly unable to provide for themselves and their families. This ongoing abuse of contractual employment has been shown to cause governments to pay more for health care, to provide more for retirees, and to expend more for children, in terms of basic necessities. It also renders a large portion of the working class dependent on subsidies from the Government without a corresponding return of productivity.

The practice of creating contractual employment for otherwise permanent jobs also has an adverse effect on proper industrial representation, as unions face more and more pressure to recruit members. Cadres of workers in various industries will express an interest in having representation, but the short tenures of these workers, along with a healthy 'institutionalised fear' of job loss, makes it almost impossible to complete the prescribed process of unionisation.

In essence, the issuing of contracts for work that is continuous has become a creative way of union busting by the owners of capital. Trade unions will submit claims to represent the various categories of workers in a business, but by the time the claim is processed, these workers are replaced with new ones in the same jobs, or workers are threatened with non-renewal of contracts. In the face of their social and economic demands, the workers will invariably choose economic prudence as opposed to the less-tangible prospects of legitimately acquiring decent working conditions through the unions.

While the Constitution of Jamaica allows workers the freedom of association to join a trade union of their choice, lately, this has become more of a theoretical ideal than anything else. In practice, it is akin to telling a pedestrian that he is free to cross a six-lane highway without providing a pedestrian crossing, to say nothing of a stop light.

The protection of our workforce has been a sore point for some time now and has contributed to us becoming poorer and poorer as a nation. The political rhetoric regarding the protection of workers is played out. It is remarkable that the current government, for example, has managed to pass the ZOSO legislation in a matter of mere months, even though respective administrations have failed to pass any major legislation benefiting workers since 1975. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) is a ready example of something that has been tabled and discussed by many labour ministers for more than two decades, but has failed to come to fruition. We, as a nation, continue to sign the ILO convention but we have fallen woefully short of the mark.

Though the rallying call for the protection of workers through legislation may seem like a futile one, it must continue to come from the institutions that are charged with being the vanguard for workers, namely the trade unions. It is to this end that I am proposing the following as a framework to start the discussion on legislation to protect Jamaican workers from the hell trap of contract work.

There are numerous cases of similar problems with abuse of contract labour in developed countries being handled through legislation. One such is Finland, where an individual who has been engaged on four consecutive short-term contracts becomes automatically employed on a permanent basis and would be eligible for all the benefits inherent in same. There is also legislation that guarantees contract workers the same benefits as permanent staff, within the same category of work. This legislation cannot, however, function outside the purview of the labour ministry since disingenuous employers will naturally seek to create alternative categories or find possible loopholes.

I am, therefore, suggesting that upon the formation of any business venture that seeks licensing or registration or for existing businesses that they declare, along with their purpose of business, the total number of employees reasonably needed to run the business on a continuous basis. This information would also be provided for a business that is seeking to expand its operations, and the employment of any worker on a contractual basis would be done through application and sanction by the labour ministry. Contract employment was meant for seasonal work or special projects. Policies must be put in place to ensure that this is always the case.

I am also proposing that if contract workers are engaged on three consecutive contracts totalling two years of service or more, these workers should automatically receive permanent status as an employees.

These suggestions are not in any way to be construed as any kind of finished legislation but are instead intended to start a fulsome discussion and find creative ways to address what is clearly a serious issue.

I implore the trade union movement to continue the dialogue with fresh and practical ideas and additionally to lobby the Government of the day to explore these ideas with a view towards protecting our vulnerable workers and preventing the working class from spiralling into abject poverty as a result of improper treatment at the hands of employers who seem to have little regard for their well-being and the dignity of their working conditions.

- Khurt Fletcher is island supervisor at the National Workers' Union. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.