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EDITORIAL - The industrial storm over Jamaica

Published:Wednesday | May 5, 2010 | 12:00 AM

The current level of industrial unrest facing the country comes against a background of severe hardships caused by the rising cost of living. But the Government has some work to do to calm the nation in light of the militant stance adopted by public-sector workers.

Public-sector pay has largely been determined by collective negotiations between government and groups representing these workers. Given the presence of so many stalwarts of the labour movement serving within the current government, it is ironic that industrial peace has been so elusive and that negotiations with teachers, police and nurses appear to have broken down irretrievably.

What is most disappointing in all of this, is that the minister of labour and his negotiating team have been unable to arrive at consensus and persuade the workers to accept offers on the table. Sadly, the intervention by Prime Minister Bruce Golding has not done anything to calm the choppy seas.

Over the years, public-sector wage negotiations have been fraught with bitterness and we can think of some epic battles that have been fought in this country. But, always, a way was found to broker peace and build a social pact between workers and government. It would be useful to look at the approaches then and now. This time appears different. It is almost as if the Ministry of Labour has run out of cards.

It is a truism that "if you pay peanuts you will attract apes", and there are some who feel that low wages have contributed to the gradual downgrading of the public sector. On the streets, there has been a scathing critique of the performance of the police who many regard as corrupt, and of teachers, whose competence is often questioned. Despite political persuasion, there is not a great depth of sympathy out there for civil servants.

Given the economic realities of the day, do the workers believe the government has the ability to settle the billion-dollar wage bill, but is simply holding out on them? Would they prefer to see retrenchment rather than retention? These are some of the obvious questions that have to be answered. Both sides need to take a dispassionate look at the realties and find some creative answers to the problems.

Rendered incapable

It is a fact that the economic situation has rendered the government incapable of meeting its obligations, especially with the IMF axe dangling over its head. The prime minister has said the government will not be able to honour its commitments to workers. In light of such a declaration, are the striking workers being realistic? Are they being irresponsible?

The rest of us, who are, in fact, footing these public-sector bills, need to be assured that our children will be taught when they attend schools, that we will be looked after when we are admitted to hospital and that the police will respond with alacrity to our calls for help.

We want to be assured of industrial peace, a more productive customer-service environment and, generally, better working relationship between employer and the employed.

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