PROTECTING WORKERS' jobs is among one of the most important roles of trade unions. And in seeking to fulfil this role, we have seen many instances where unions have adopted an unbalanced approach that does not take into account the concerns of the companies that employ their members.
We submit that the current impasse between the unions and Pan Caribbean Sugar Company is one such instance when the unions appear not to be interested in achieving balance between their members' interests and those of the employer.
Security is an important aspect of the operations of the company that has pumped significant sums into the island's near-comatose sugar industry. Even though many had written off sugar, every economy must play to its strengths. In times when sugar was king, Jamaica's prosperity was built on sugar.
Pan Caribbean has cited a number of security breaches at its factories, including the disappearance of expensive bearings, and after due consideration, decided that it needed outside professional help. It hired a private security firm. Having made this choice, the company decided to let go the more than 100 security personnel who proved they were unable to give the level of security demanded by the company.
Let's be clear about one thing: If workers fail to perform in their jobs, they threaten the viability of the entire operations. Pan Caribbean expects a return on its investment and aims to make profit for its shareholders, and in achieving that success, it will ultimately benefit its employees and the communities in which it operates.
Trade unions have never demonstrated that they understood the meaning of investment. This is why unions have never considered a company's resources and its ability to pay when making their strident demands for more pay. And unions are mostly silent when companies face substantial losses because of theft or when low productivity threatens their success. There is a direct relationship between profit and performance, although the unions tend to remain silent in the face of substantial losses by a company. How have unions ever helped to put their members' companies on a sustainable path?
INCREASE EFFICIENCY LEVELS
In an environment of a shrinking labour market, workers are desperately trying to hold on to their jobs, and the unions could best serve their members by encouraging them to raise their productivity and performance. Perhaps if this admonition had been given to the Pan Caribbean employees, they may not have found themselves on the unemployment heap.
Unions have played a significant role in securing for workers a union voice and the right to bargain collectively in the aftermath of the labour upheavals of the 1930s, and their contribution to the political and social development of the country is well documented. But that's all in the past. Today, unions must respond to the emerging realities of the 21st-century labour market.
Interestingly, labour unions and political parties are the organisations best known for their lack of transparency and accountability. Now, whereas corporations and other sectors of society are subject to financial transparency, union members are never sure how their dues are spent.
The only good thing that could come out of the dispute with Pan Caribbean Sugar would be if it motivates other workers to become more serious about their own productivity and on-the-job performance.
The unions in Jamaica can learn a truism from noted economist Herbert Stein: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop."
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