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A new social partnership is necessary
published: Saturday | February 15, 2003

S. George Kirkcaldy, Contributor
(In a letter to the Editor)

I WAS recently on a radio programme looking at the industrial relations picture; but, as usual on these programmes, time for discussion is limited and the topic is never properly ventilated.

It was the general feeling that the dismal state of the economy would impact negatively on employer/employee relationship and the question was, what can be done to address the issue.

Reference was made to the need to forge a Social Contract between government, workers/trade unions and employers and to the fact that this was achieved in Barbados against the background of a cut-back in the salaries of government officials.

What wasn't mentioned was our local unions' views about the proposed Jamaican Social Contract, the sixth draft of which was presented for signature in the late 1990's. A very highly placed union official is quoted as saying in 1997 that the unions "hold true to our belief that the social partnership must impact positively upon the workers of this country and must be influenced by trends in that direction". He went on to point out that those ready to sign in the absence of guarantees on critical issues, had no idea of what a social contract was all about.

One union source pointed out that the JCTU would not be party to a social contract which attempted to introduce wage guidelines upon Jamaican workers (Prime Minister Sandiford of Barbados imposed an 8 per cent cut on public sector officials pay agreed to by some 60 per cent of employees to get Barbados out of its economic chaos - Gleaner article of 2nd February, 03, titled "Learning from Barbados").

Another union source said that there can be no restraint placed on workers when others continue to enjoy lucrative packages and there are redundancies. One must ask - has the situation changed since the late 1990's and have the views of the unions as above changed or softened, particularly in the face of the recent increase in the pay of parliamentarians, however explained, and the spate of redundancies? I don't think the situation has changed since 1997, maybe it is worse. It is going to require greater transparency in our dealings, together with an even greater realisation that we are going to sink deeper into the abyss if we don't get together.

In my 1998 book on Industrial Relations, I made the point that given the pontifications of the unions and the absence of any acceptable plans to achieve economic growth, there was little chance of a Social Contract being signed. Five years later the prospect still looks gloomy unless there is a radical change all around. I mentioned in the book seven conditions to set the stage for a Social Contract and would touch briefly on one of those conditions - Joint Consultation - which was mentioned by one of the participants in the radio programme alluded to, but not expanded upon.

Government's management of the economy to provide growth and create jobs is one way of easing the strain on the population and helping to contain industrial unrest. Another is increasing productivity which will put some money in the pockets of workers who must share in the gains from productivity. But we are not going to see much improvement unless we have the co-operation of the workforce, nurtured by a better working relationship between employer and worker. Carl Stone's survey of work attitudes in 1982 showed that of the 87 establishments canvassed, good relationships existed in only 23 per cent thereof. Poor employer/employee relationship stood out as the cardinal sin. Some will say that the situation has improved since then (certainly the employer/union relationship has) but as late as the 1990's, in a book titled "Why Workers won't Work" by Dr. Ken Carter, a worker was quoted as saying Carl Stone would have to rise from the dead and tell him that productivity would mean something for him, or words to that effect. How are we going to reach that man and colleagues of like ilk, particularly in an era of economic decline, redundancies and increases to parliamentarians not linked to productivity?

I submit that it is crucial to break down the distrust generally shared by both worker and employer for each other and Joint Consultation is one of the major planks in achieving this, as stated in the Prime Minister's Task Force Report tabled in Parliament in 1983 on Work Attitudes.

People want to be consulted and their views considered in things that concern them. Listening to the views of others is not abrogating the right to manage. It helps in the decision-making process and in the acceptance of those decisions. Additionally, it is not an attempt to wean workers away from the unions, who, I submit, should be ex-officio members of any Joint Consultative Works Council in establishments where they hold bargaining rights. Let us start somewhere to build up the framework for trust and co-operation towards greater productivity.

In the meantime, perhaps we could look at forging a social partnership at the level of individual enterprises, e.g., the Memorandum of Understanding in some companies comes to mind, and use it as a stepping stone to a national agreement.

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