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Free forced labour?

Service to one’s country is a laudable ideal and especially so when such service is voluntarily performed. Having scanned the Friday, 28th September 2012 edition of this newspaper I somehow failed to see the article entitled “All Must Serve” and it was only drawn to my attention when I was asked for a legal opinion by a gainfully employed, outraged 27-year-old. The article states that “Under a new National Youth Policy, all Barbadians between the ages of 15 and 29 will be mandated to give hundreds of hours of civic national service spread over 2 years.”

Compulsory national service, usually restricted to enrollment in military or paramilitary organisations is nothing new. As a matter of fact it is a rather archaic concept which is being phased out in the rest of the free world. Most of us would be familiar with the concept familiarly known as “conscription” or the “draft” through television programmes and movies dealing with the Vietnam war.

More than a decade ago, the United Nations proclaimed 2001 as the International Year of Volunteers and the European Union committed itself to a new social model based on an “adequately equipped and paid” workforce. “European Union Without Compulsory Military Service: Consequences for Alternative Service”, a comparative study prepared by the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection has found that conscription is directly contrary to such ideals where the presumption is that all persons are born as “free and equal”.

The most frightening part of the article was the statement that “Government is hoping to gain “considerable” financial savings by deploying these youth.” Article 23 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that everyone has the right to “free choice of employment and “Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration.” More importantly, section 14 of our Constitution provides for protection from slavery and forced labour. The only exceptions to the definition of forced labour are: labour required as a part of a criminal sentence, labour performed by prisoners to maintain the prison in which they reside; labour required of “a member of a disciplined force in pursuance of his duties as such or,…any labour that that person is required by law to perform in place of such service; or “any labour required during any period when Barbados is at war” or in the event of some natural disaster that “threatens the life or well-being of the community to the extent that the requiring of such labour is reasonably justified.”

Given the specifics of section 14, any legislation (and it must be an Act of Parliament and not simply some “National Youth Policy”) must amend section 14 of the Constitution which requires a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament in order to become law. To give the benefit of the doubt I will assume that in the same way that I overlooked the article I somehow managed to overlook the national consultation and public awareness campaign which should be precursors to radically altering the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed to all Barbadians under the Constitution.

Conscientious objection on the grounds of religious or ethical reasons allows for the performance of service in the administrative or social arena as an alternative to military service in those countries which still practise conscription. However, the European study (previously cited) reveals that those persons are not abused by the government as some sort of unpaid work force but rather receive remuneration, however small, for their efforts. In Finland for example they receive the same pay as a conscript in the armed forces.

Refusal to perform such service is generally considered to be a criminal offence with incarceration as the penalty. In the case of a 15-year-old who should really be in school, one assumes that the penalty will fall on the parent so that conceivably, a productive member of the work force could find themselves a guest of Her Majesty in the lovely parish of Saint Philip simply because their minor child fails to perform 200 hours of free forced labour for the government. I would hazard a guess that “considerable” savings on the cost of government’s operations would not in the opinion of any court fall within the definition of that which is “reasonably justified”.

In this case life is imitating art and clearly someone has been reading the penmanship of George Orwell. I will stalk Parliament’s website waiting for the draft legislation to be posted.

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