Sun | Sep 19, 2021

Alvin Wint | The value of dialogue and partnership in addressing Jamaica’s intractable problems

Published:Wednesday | September 15, 2021 | 12:09 AM
As Jamaica’s challenges with COVID-19 have intensified, calls have grown louder for the Jamaican Government to issue a national vaccination mandate.
As Jamaica’s challenges with COVID-19 have intensified, calls have grown louder for the Jamaican Government to issue a national vaccination mandate.
Professor Alvin Wint
Professor Alvin Wint
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Jamaica has faced many intractable problems. The historical evidence suggests that finding solutions to those problems has often included a commitment to dialogue and partnership.

The earliest example of the success of this approach has been in the electoral arena. As is well known, as Jamaica confronted the spectre of an electoral system in which the country was rapidly losing confidence in the late 1970s, dialogue between Jamaica’s two main political parties resulted in the creation of a quadripartite electoral management structure, featuring these two parties, the hitherto government-controlled Electoral Office of Jamaica and civil society, which has contributed to a significant improvement in Jamaica’s electoral management system, currently overseen by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica.

More recently, when Jamaica finally came to grips with its history of macroeconomic instability a decade ago, a partnership among the Government, led by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, with critical operational support from the Minister of Finance Dr Peter Phillips, the private sector and the trade union movement, supported by international financial partners and the political opposition, created the platform upon which Jamaica has been able to move closer to a path of fiscal sustainability.

A partnership group in the form of the Economic Programme Oversight Committee, operating initially under the sterling leadership of Richard Byles and, more latterly, Keith Duncan, played a critical role in providing oversight and support to the fiscal stabilisation programme.

In a similar vein, Jamaica struggled for many years to replace its rapidly obsolescing electricity-generating equipment with new capacity that would also involve a diversification of energy supplies to reduce its exposure to erratic changes in the price of any single fuel source and reduce the overall costs of electricity generation.

Despite well-intentioned efforts across political administrations, it was a partnership body in the form of the Electricity Sector Enterprise Team (ESET), operating under the leadership of Dr the Hon Vincent Lawrence, with the committed support of the ministry and minister responsible for electricity, and the Office of Utilities Regulation, that facilitated the transformation of Jamaica’s baseload electricity-generating capacity in accordance with the mandate given to ESET in June 2014 from the Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Simpson Miller.

In a more recent effort, initiated by discussions at the National Partnership Council, dialogue between the Government, led by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, and the Opposition, led by Dr Peter Phillips, and ably supported by government and opposition members charged with oversight of crime, led to the development of a national crime plan, supported by both major political parties and civil society. This plan, which was launched in 2020, is currently being monitored by a Crime Monitoring Oversight Committee led by Lloyd Distant.

THE INTRACTABLE PROBLEM OF COVID-19

Jamaica is currently confronted with yet another intractable problem. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked a toll of health and economic casualties on the country, as it has across much of the world. Jamaica’s early response to this problem was to draw on its history of dialogue and partnership.

For example, within two months of the arrival of the first COVID-19 case in Jamaica, Prime Minister Holness had established a partnership-based body, the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Task Force. Operating under the able leadership of Dr the Hon Nigel Clarke, and with the support of several government ministers and key national civil society leaders, this task force and its various subcommittees established, within three months, a framework designed to stimulate a rapid recovery from the effects of the pandemic.

More recently, as Jamaica has struggled to contain the effects of the virus, and more vaccines have become available, Prime Minister Holness has established a partnership body in the form of the National COVID-19 Vaccination Operationalisation Task Force, chaired by Professor the Hon Gordon Shirley, one of the region’s leading authorities on operational management. The role of this task force is to engage in dialogue with key stakeholders and provide oversight and management with the goal of significantly enhancing Jamaica’s operational vaccination capacity.

As Jamaica’s challenges with COVID-19 have intensified, calls have grown louder for the Jamaican Government to issue a national vaccination mandate. While there is strong support for the vaccination process from many religious and trade union leaders, several such leaders have indicated that their support for accelerating the vaccination process does not extend to a support for the Government to mandate that every individual in Jamaica be vaccinated, because such a broad and sweeping encroachment on the civil or religious liberty of every Jamaican is neither considered to be justified nor required.

Some private sector leaders, however, have indicated that legal support from the Government is critical to provide a platform upon which they can properly exercise their duty of care in protecting the health of their employees and customers.

OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH ACT

Yet, Jamaica actually needs no new legal framework upon which employers can design their policies geared to protecting the health of their workers and customers. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (2017) stipulates that “a person conducting a business or undertaking shall ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety and health of all workers and other persons”. But this act also specifies the importance of doing so in consultation with the workers whose health is to be protected, or, where applicable, their representatives. Thus, the act states, “A person conducting a business or undertaking shall, so far as is reasonably practicable, consult with workers who carry out work for the business or undertaking.”

It goes on to indicate that consultation is required in relation to “identifying hazards and risks, making decisions about ways to eliminate or minimise those risks, and proposing changes that may affect the safety and health of workers. It further requires that relevant information about the matter is shared with workers and that workers are given a reasonable opportunity to express their views and to contribute to the decision-making process.”

The principles of health protection and of dialogue embodied in this act should be used as the basis for designing workforce policies that protect, in a risk-proportionate manner, the workforce and others in the face of the pandemic.

Dialogue and partnership, rather than edict and unilateralism, are more effective when dealing with intractable problems. Jamaica should continue on that path.

Professor Alvin Wint is a member of the National Partnership Council. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com