Sat | Jun 19, 2021

Orville Taylor | Public-sector unions need more vision

Published:Sunday | May 9, 2021 | 12:12 AM

Imagine if the first thing that is carried in the news at the beginning of Child Month is that the majority of Jamaican children are failing or that Jamaica has the highest incidence of paternity fraud or father misidentification in the world. Well, consider the angst that the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) felt on no other day than Teachers’ Day, when it was processing comments by the education minister regarding the performance of our classroom teachers. Timing is everything, and though the minister has a responsibility to demand accountability and performance from all under her portfolio, teachers took it as a gut punch; a sucker punch even.

It is not a frivolous concern that she has. A 2014 World Bank Report did indicate that our teachers were only engaged in core teaching activities 11 per cent of their working day. And despite the 2017 study from the ministry’s inspectorate that showed 69 per cent compliance, the Jamaican people need answers.

Nevertheless, there is a greater interest about the root causes of the ‘underperformance’. In any event, although the data are from the pre-COVID-19 era, any adjustment or evaluation of the teachers in the current scenario is on shaky ground. Unless there is a contractual provision that a shift to delivering classes mainly via the Internet is provided within teachers’ contract, the new mode of delivery might very well be a breach, if forced. Nonetheless, given that most teachers have the interests of their students at heart, they make the adjustment or sacrifice.

NOT THE NEW NORMAL

Online teaching is not the ‘new normal’. It is a wartime emergency response until we subdue the enemy. Many of us will never learn via this method. Similarly, the adjustment is going to be outside the competence of many teachers. More than 120,000 students have fallen off the grid since the changes brought on by COVID-19. Trust me, teachers are affected too.

All the studies done over the past half a century have pointed to job satisfaction and employee engagement as the most important causal variables in guaranteeing productivity. Wages and allowances, though important, typically fall third or even fourth on the list as to why workers feel satisfied or like their jobs. In fact, it is where jobs are inherently boring, repetitious or uncomfortable that pay becomes a top factor.

Though late in coming, and I give credit to his maternal social work antecedents, ‘Santa Clarke’ has introduced a new Social Pension. It is not a panacea, but it recognises that too many persons, and not those who have sat back and squandered their youth, cannot make ends meet after retirement or when they leave the labour market early. Indeed, some fall into the category. However, the majority of Jamaicans, who have no post-retirement income or wealth, are hard-working people, who have put the ‘dead’ into dedicated, in slaving for their employers, especially government.

DROPPED TOO MANY BALLS

The JTA, the Nurses Association of Jamaica and the Jamaica Police Federation in particular, but all unions who represent the workers in the public sector, have dropped too many balls. The JTA in its current manifestation has been around before more than 90 per cent of its current members were born. Two years after universal adult suffrage, the NAJ was born in 1946, while the Federation came into being in the same year that we had our first free and fair election, 1944.

Back in 1965, when all of these ‘grey back’ unions, and yes Federation, you are a union, were formed, the average life expectancy in the early to mid-60s was around 66. So, most people died a little after their work life ended; retire then expire in five years. Based on the mathematics, most Jamaicans would not live to benefit from the National Insurance Scheme, which for many years gave payments to men at age 65.

Work out the math again; if the Jamaican dollar has fallen faster than the credibility of certain prominent public figures, over the past year, how much difference do you think a 10 per cent salary increase will make? Unions must know by now that productivity, job satisfaction are linked to workers not only feeling currently appreciated, but their knowing that they will not suffer after a career in the service.

This is in no way advocacy or becoming a mouthpiece for the current administration. However, given a choice, I would gladly forgo any wage increase for the next two years with the full understanding that when I park my khaki suit with the crown on the epaulettes, disinfect my scrubs, or put down my register for the last time, I will not have to stand outside the offices at Ocean Boulevard, Church Street, Caledonia Avenue or Trevennion Park Road with a clean chamber pot or cheese tin.

Our public sector unions need more vision and must ensure that their members live with dignity after their stellar years of service, often to an ungrateful government.

This is 2021, stop being penny wise ...

- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at The University of the West Indies, a radio talk-show host, and author of ‘Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets’. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.