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Educate the masses

Following is the second part of a two-part article by political scientist George Brathwaite that looks at the current industrial relations climate in Barbados. The first installment was published on Page 23 yesterday.

Clearly because the Barbados Private Sector Association, Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other business elites still find it necessary to superficially caution labour with elevated tones of superiority, is an indication that they prefer the status quo and are resistant to labour’s challenges.

Every seemingly logical reason that becomes available is thrown at workers willing to rendezvous and take industrial action. The capitalist business classes in Barbados still savour the idea of continuing with their veiled dominance over the protesting voice of labour.

For instance, the very BCCI still finds the public space to assert its shadowed abuse of labour. Vaswani states that “the BCCI remains confident in its role of influencing the social, economic and business environment of Barbados”. The business class surely promotes its self-importance to the people of Barbados regarding the entity’s claim that it wants “to create sustainable economic progress and quality of life for all residents” in Barbados. Can the capitalist class be a better protector of the workers than the very trade unions through which the workers have a voice?

Many seek to whip the trade unions into discipline as touted by Government and business. The silencing comes in forms suggesting that labour ought to give way to the demands of a range of things inclusive of: hidden agendas, prejudiced judgements, institutional deficiencies, economic factors, and the expressed biases and provocative actions of top-ranking government officials.

Sir Roy Trotman, General Secretary of the Barbados Workers Union, contends that the trade unions “see a level of arrogance” and that if this superciliousness is not arrested now and striking while the iron is hot, “it will put us [the workers and trade unions] in our graves”.

Patrick Frost, a long-time trade unionist and now consultant to the Barbados Secondary Teachers Union, urges Barbadians: “Never let us forget that how a trade union deals with its matters lies at its sole discretion. Sometimes we would take legal advice … but in other times we do what is necessary and expedient in the circumstances to maintain what trade unions have been able to get for workers in Barbados and elsewhere as a result of certain efforts.”

These views are also reflected in political scientist, Dr. George Belle’s assertion that the ultimate power of the trade unions and their memberships rest in the “ultimate action” of withdrawing one’s labour as a power move.

The intent is fundamentally about bringing about the desired quest for social justice. Sir Roy suggests that the trade unions “have to send a message to the employer class … we are going to fight back”. In an apt statement, Belle emphasises the negative impact that attacks on labour can have on democracy wherein that ideal of democracy itself falls under severe threat. Belle asserts that the usurpation of the workers’ voices and representativeness is indicative of “a danger to every worker;” and to “reversing the democratic culture in Barbados.”

There are some spectators, aided and abetted by the media, preferring to remain peripheral and removed from any fight that the unions must mount. Unfortunately, seldom are the workers conscious of their ultimate weapon; it is less often that they achieve wide-scale solidarity or revert to a total reliance on workers’ power. Trade unions and their key spokespersons must maintain the fight in order to “prevent any erosion’ of workers” rights and stop the threat to their survival.

On the one hand, there are citizens seemingly unaware or unappreciative of the historical struggles that challenged the old colonial system and the exploitative planter regime in the early and middle 20th century.

On the other hand, Barbados is trampled by a situation in which the current administration appears less serious about matters of social justice, the enhancement of trade unionism, and the protection of workers’ rights.

The DLP’s 2008 Manifesto recognised that: “Given the evolving economic climate across the world, including globalisation and economic liberalisation, many of the gains made by workers in Barbados are increasingly coming under threat. Job security now seems a thing of the past as contract work takes pre-eminence, wages are under pressure as workers are called upon to work harder while earning less, and conditions of work continue to decline even in the public services of Barbados.”

Indeed, the current DLP administration pledged that: “a new DLP government will move to immediately enact a comprehensive national Labour Rights legislative compendium” which included the following:

* A Full Employment Rights Act

* An Alternative Disputes Settlement and Arbitration Committee

* A Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Act

* National minimum wages legislation

* Legislation fully recognizing Trade Unions.

It is clear that the DLP Administration, between the period of 2008 and here at the start of 2013, has not robustly worked towards their promises as presented to Barbadians. Hence, the DLP has seemingly failed in the labour aspect of its mandate given by the electorate.

Barbados needs more than public promotion of workers’ benefits and rights which are contained in political parties’ manifestoes. Barbados needs the appropriate legislation, institutions, and trained people equipped with the necessary support systems.

As a priority, trade unions themselves must do more to educate and inform the masses. Workers must unite in solidarity in order to remedy existing weaknesses in the requisite forms of legislation.

The bitter tongues of the uniformed and an often forgetful general public have not necessarily helped trade unionism. The quest to attain high levels of social justice for workers in Barbados is still an incomplete journey towards freedom.

Social and political contrivances could threaten the very culture of industrial relations in Barbados. This situation, untreated by labour unions and the workers, will rupture the principles of democracy so embedded in the psyche of freedom for Barbadians.

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