Orville Taylor, Contributor
A week ago, on leaving The Gleaner Company, I drove past the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, a place that I owe much of my signification to. Seeing a large throng of sad, cross, angry and miserable faces, I couldn't help but be reminded of how much the Jamaican workers have been betrayed by the two major political parties and trade unions, whose leaders have put politics above worker welfare.
They were workers employed to Lamasa Janitorial and Porter Services, the firm which had a contract to provide janitorial services to hospitals. After Government - note, Government - terminated the contract, the employer has failed to meet his/her obligations to the workers under the Employment (Termination and Redundancy Payment) Act (ETRPA) and has ignored the ministry's invitations to attend meetings to resolve the dispute.
A hapless National Workers' Union (NWU), which has voting rights within the People's National Party (PNP), is appealing to the ministers of health and labour to intervene because it is "... demanding the management to have these issues settled: for example ... notice and redundancy payments, outstanding uniform allowance, minimum wage retroactive payments, vacation leave". The truth is, had the NWU and other unions pushed hard enough for the overdue legislative changes, they would not be in this predicament. All Parliaments since Independence have had NWU and Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) officers on both sides.
The Lamasa situation epitomises all that has been wrong with labour policy in this country, but in particular, since the 1980s. Somebody got the brilliant idea that the best way to provide service to the public is to privatise it. Among the expectations of privatisation is the assumption that productivity would increase when non-governmental employers were operating key sectors. In some cases, there was the move towards a quasi-private entity called executive agencies. Among these agencies is the ultra-efficient, JDIP-tainted National Works Agency (NWA).
Nonetheless, for health, the direction was unclear. The notion of having a non-user fee policy, or 'free' health care for minors, is inconsistent with a philosophy of privatisation. It is a paradox. Furthermore, why would a Government not recognise that it needed to guarantee the highest labour standards for persons who either work for it or persons contracted to it?
With privatisation, the Government has no direct control over the welfare of the workers. So, all matters which have to do with their benefits and entitlements would fall within the remit of the private employer, who is given a contract for services and who then subcontracts the work to employees. More often than not, the workers are labelled contractors, as in the security industry, and the employer is totally absolved from any obligations under the various labour laws.
Of course, these so-called contract workers are really bona fide employees, and the employers are simply being dishonest. However, when the law was to have been amended to protect them, neither the trade unionists, nor the Opposition nor the Government paid attention to the fact that the draft bill was inadequate. The shortcomings of the then impending legislation were outlined in a study commissioned by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
More ironically, studies done for the ILO, by the ILO, by international academics and my colleague Noel Cowell and myself all point to the direct correlation between worker protection and decent work on the one hand, and high or steady productivity and economic growth on the other hand. Therefore, whoever advised this anti-labour paradigm had his head in the sand while speaking.
In another study, done in 2002 to 2003, one observation was that the number of complaints by non-unionised workers owing to breaches of the ETRPA had multiplied tenfold between 1992 and 2002. On the other hand, the number of disputes reported by unions to the ministry over the dismissal of workers was declining steadily. It was clear that workers were being abused at increasing rates and unions were doing less about it.
The ETRPA was long known to be as porous as a politician trying to cover up corruption, and, if properly exploited by employers, gave as much protection as a G-string does to an extra-fluffy woman. During the 1980s and 1990s, it was observed that countless employers were disappearing like a harlot from a drunken client's room, leaving the workers with unpaid entitlements. Under the act, the employer could play a game of indefinite periods of short layoffs and have workers wait ad infinitum for the 'chumps'.
However, the worker had to make his claim for the 'likkle butta' within six months or he would lose his entitlement forever. This is the law initiated by the worker-loving Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) headed by Hugh Shearer and endorsed and passed by people-loving PNP, led by no other than Michael Manley.
It should be noted that when the ETRPA was passed, Manley was prime minister and head of the NWU, and Shearer, leader of Opposition, was president of the BITU as well. Apart from an amendment in 1986 that put a 120-day limit on layoffs, no new protection has been given to workers under that law for 30 years.
Against the background of the ILO's work, one recommendation was for a redundancy payment fund, like the severance payment fund (SPF) that exists under Barbadian legislation. In that country, which has more union coverage than Jamaica, yet, higher productivity levels, all employers and workers pay into the fund. It is administered like the NIS (actually better), and where employers are bankrupt or simply disappear like thieves in the night, the workers get paid from the SPF. And the employers don't go home empty-handed either. Compliant employers are then able to get back a portion of the money they paid to the workers from the SPF, too.
But that is Barbados, where the private sector recognised that worker protection was key to its economic success and was smart enough to pay attention to the intellectual research. It is the same Barbados where, in the early 1990s, the capitalists and the unions came together and forged a social partnership and pulled the government along. It is a country where government, trade unions and business leaders all agreed that the dollar, with Mr Jackman on it, was not to ever slip below the value of 51 per cent of George Washington. In short, it is not a country where the workers were sold out.
The recommendation made after doing the ILO studies was not mere wishful thinking by a researcher who was overly sympathetic to workers. On the contrary, the data had suggested from as far back as the late 1990s that the labour policy of the Jamaican government and the human resources practices by the employers were fuelling social conflict and would have led to increased acts of violence. It is not an idealistic academic speaking.
If one took the time to speak with the Lamasa workers and looked into their eyes, one would realise this is no joke. Imagine a man saying that he has to give his infant 'suaagar and water' instead of formula because he had no money. Envision a woman whose child is unable to start second term in a prominent high school because there is nothing in the kitty. Think of a young man on the brink, whose mother is pushed out under these labour policies and who is toeing the line between hunger and gunmanship.
Go ahead, let's see how people are put first.
Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.