Labour in crisis
Published: Sunday | May 24, 2009
This is not a good time for labour. Countries of the world have been celebrating holidays in May in recognition of the role of workers and labour movements in social and economic development. The celebrations are called Labour Day, May Day or International Workers' Day. This is Jamaica's Labour Day weekend. In fact, workers and their unions give every weekend to us. They fought for and won the five-day work week. Their campaign used to be summed up as the 'Eight-hour Day Movement' for eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation and eight hours of rest.
Unfortunately, workers cannot live a decent life on eight hours of work. They cannot afford eight hours of recreation or rest. The governments of the world are spending trillions of dollars to bail out management whose policies have caused us global economic misery. Little is being spent to bail out workers. It is even inconceivable for western economic theory and practice to contemplate this.
This is a bad time for labour. At the end of 2007, there were 190 million people unemployed, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). But there were 487 million who, though employed, did not earn enough to live above the poverty line of US$1 a day. Another 1.3 billion people earned less than US$2 a day. This was just before the global economic crisis broke. Imagine the situation today. After an increase in global unemployment in 2008, the ILO expects a 'dramatic' increase in 2009. More than 45 per cent of those working are still poor. They are the 'working poor'.
Deteriorating working conditions
In this 2006 file photo, then Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller dances with Opposition Senator Dwigtht Nelson, while Aloun Assamba, minister of tourism, entertainment and culture, dances with Rudyard Spencer, Opposition spokesman on labour after the prime minister's unveiling of the Labour Day theme during the launch of the National Labour Day project 2006 'Jamaica's Beauty - Our Duty' at Jamaica House, St Andrew. - File
This is a hard time for labour. Hundreds of thousands of workers protested deteriorating working conditions in May Day rallies on May 1, the date most countries celebrate their labour day.
It is sad that the police had to use water cannons, tear gas and pepper spray against people who were celebrating labour's history. The marching brought out all kinds of ideological groups - anarchists, neo-Nazis, leftists, and social democrats reflecting the deeper connections people were making between the economic crisis and the ideological systems that seek to justify western economics.
It is sadder if our own Labour Day in Jamaica is being used for political advantage. It is to be widely condemned if the Government had selected three constituencies for its four National Labour Day projects, constituencies where by-elections are expected soon. This is the same government that selected West Portland last year for the major Labour Day project at a time when a by-election was expected there too. Besides, usually, there is one national Labour Day project, not three or four.
Even Golding had to admit that had he been in the Opposition, he, too, would have felt that the selection was partisan. But he has still done nothing about it. The irony is that the Jamaica Labour Party was founded by the Caribbean's greatest labour leader in his time, Alexander Bustamante, and its former leader, Hugh Shearer shared the stage with Michael Manley as great labour leaders of the following generation.
We must make sure that Labour Day is not used for narrow politics. Its history must be properly honoured. In 1961, Norman Manley proposed that a day be set aside to celebrate Labour Day to honour the workers' rebellion of 1938. He proposed that Empire Day, May 24 (the day that celebrated the British Empire) be used instead as Labour Day. Labour Day was subsequently celebrated by trade unions, but sometimes clashes between them undermined the real purpose. In 1972, Michael Manley promoted Labour Day as a celebration of workers' contribution to the development of Jamaica and as a day of voluntary community participation to projects of benefit to Jamaica.
True meaning of labour day
The point should not be missed as to what Jamaica's Labour Day is really about. It is more than about celebrating work, the struggle for rights by workers and their families. Indeed, it is out of labour's struggles that we have paid sick leave, a national minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, and paid maternity leave. For Michael Manley, Labour Day was also about fraternity - working together; equality - working together without social distinction; and a day of patriotic national service towards community and nation building. If the party of Bustamante and Shearer reduced Labour Day to partisan politics, it would be very sad indeed.
Manley asked that we put work into Labour Day. We should not put politics into Labour Day. Some things must be sacred. There must be some things that are non-partisan. Work must be honoured. We cannot reward and punish work politically. Labour Day must be about building community cooperation, not dividing communities. Efforts that bond people to each other in communities get the best out of them. Public money should not be used to reward political partisans for politically determined projects in politically determined geographical spaces.
There is a picture in The Gleaner of May 5, 2006 of the ceremony launching Labour Day that year. In that picture, then prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller was dancing with senior vice-president of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, Senator Dwight Nelson. Then minister of tourism, entertainment and culture, Aloun Assamba, was on the floor with Ruddy Spencer, who was Opposition spokesman for labour. The occasion was non-partisan and festive.
The theme was one the nation could relate to - beautification - and the project, Falmouth Square, was slated for development to the benefit of tourism, culture and entertainment. Again, the nation could relate to it. There was no political controversy over it.
The pity is that the controversy detracts from the worthy national projects like ginger resuscitation, and repair and renovation of the St Ann's Bay Hospital, the Riverside Sports Court and the Blue Hole Nature Park. Community projects like cleaning and beautification of cemeteries, infirmaries, and beaches, and tree planting are also very worthy. Important organisations are involved and I am not suggesting that their involvement is political. Credit must go to the Social Development Commission, Jamaica Social Investment Fund, the state agencies responsible for water, transport, the environment and others, parish planning committees and the Labour Day Secretariat. The people who go out to labour must be given the greatest credit of all. They must volunteer their labour in the true spirit of Labour Day, not of partisan politics.
Many bemoan the decline of volunteerism in Jamaica. We must nurture what is left of it, protect it from those who would exploit it, and promote it among the next generation of leaders and citizens. When we celebrate at Labour Day parties we must do so in good conscience that we have put country before party. We thank all of those who have and will. It is an opportunity for all of us to give back to the nation.
Robert Buddan lectures in the Department of Government, UWI, Mona campus. Email: Robert.Buddan@uwimona. edu.jm or email@example.com.