Mon | Jan 21, 2019

EDITORIAL - Reform labour ministry, too

Published:Sunday | November 9, 2014 | 12:00 AM

The bungling at the blocks in Jamaica's latest effort at labour-market reform is, unfortunately, typical of the manner in which this country's Government approaches this subject: inefficiently and with an absence of clarity.

So, no one knows who really has ownership of the process - although why this may be the case is understandable - or who will lead the Labour Market Reform Commission (LMRC). It was initially announced that it would be led by retired business executive Douglas Orane, a declaration the public has since been advised was premature. It appears that someone forget to tell Mr Orane of his appointment and/or enquire of his availability for the assignment.

Further, it has taken nearly two decades since the last review of Jamaica's labour market under Professor George Eaton for anything of substance from their findings - the flexible workweek - to finally make it into law. Labour ministers dithered on the issue.

Which brings us to the matter of ownership of the latest process. The announcement of the commission, with Mr Orane at its helm, was, curiously, announced by the finance ministry, in a parliamentary document. Then it announced that the appointment was "premature", which was followed by a statement by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security making the same point.

But which of these ministries is really in charge of the process remains murky. This newspaper believes it is Finance and Planning, where Peter Phillips has been leading the overhaul, with uncommon commitment and skill, of Jamaica's fiscal/economic management.


The point is that the labour ministry, under several ministers and across administrations, has failed to perceive or grasp its potential as a transformative, core economic ministry. It has operated largely as a labour-dispute mediation and social-welfare agency. The current labour minister, Derrick Kellier, poses neither the leadership nor other skills from which the LMRC can draw energy or meaningful policy support.

Further, while this may be outside a narrow interpretation of its mandate, among the recommendations of the commission should be for a fundamental reorientation and restructuring of the labour ministry, or perhaps its abandonment altogether. The philosophy and ethos of the ministry were built on the assumption of an unbridgeable chasm between labour and capital and a default position of defending weak, exploited workers. Labour ministers, broadly, felt that they had, or were required to have, no larger interface with the rest of the economy, which is unsustainable in a modern economy, where firms and their employees have to constantly respond to competitive pressures in the domestic and global environment.

In the circumstances, there has to be consistent matching of skills against market demands, and an appreciation of labour-market requirements for firms - and their employees - to remain in an environment that is in a perpetual state of flux. In that sense, while there will be the occasional major overhaul, labour-market reform is a constant, requiring not an adversarial relationship but a partnership between policymakers, workers and firms.

Much of this new thinking is beginning to emerge in Jamaica, but is yet to take hold. It won't happen in the discordance and missteps that have so far attended this reform project.

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