Labour must not yield
“Unless you have a group of people in this country who are prepared to redress the imbalances, to see things in the broad, social context; to see the economic importance of legislation, the economic importance of development, the psychological importance of removing distinctions between one class of the community and the other, then you are asking for trouble.” Premier E.W. Barrow, 1964.
In this article, an attempt is made to make sense of the character of Barbadian society and economy, and to raise concerns in which the trouble is here. There is the marginalising of labour that culminates in growing inequalities across the nation. Moreover, the very tripartite relationship that is supposed to lend some efficacy to the working partnership among trade unions, employers and the government for improving chances of economic growth has been rendered “fragmented;” and is “adversely affecting the labour landscape” according to John Pilgrim of the National Productivity Council.
In real terms, Barbados has reached a crisis zone that is clearly identifiable by such phenomena as widespread uncertainty, lack of confidence by the governed (as is often expressed to the governing), a sheepish population that finds comfort in sweeping crucial matters under the carpet for the sake of expediency and survival, and an industrial relations climate that shows signs of excruciating frustration. Many of the events that either raise consciousness or call for acute concerns occurred and are still happening under the post-2008 Democratic Labour Party (DLP).
An editorial appearing in June 2015, indicated that: “In a relatively short period the industrial relations climate in Barbados has moved from cool to warm – and is now threatening to shift to hot.” What are the related dynamics underlying this crisis? A plethora of ridiculous issues, some unsettled, emerged in Barbados with the Government often to be found at the centre. Ministers of Government twiddled their thumbs, and waited for the worse (recession) to blow over as if leadership did not matter.
In the past few years, there has been the targeted humiliation of labour unions. The personalised onslaughts have become part of a covert strategy to divide, silence, and co-opt union leaders and their advocates if necessary. Government, spurred on by local capitalists and opportunists, has presumably declared by all means necessary in order to neutralise labour’s strength and any solidarity or workers’ power. The Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT), the Barbados Secondary Teachers Union (BSTU), the Barbados Workers Union (BWU), the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), and the Unity Workers Union (UWU) have all lamented the treatment of workers in Barbados’ public and private sectors.
Perhaps bearing the brunt of criticism has been Mary Redman of the BSTU, Akani McDowell of the NUPW, and Caswell Franklyn of the UWU, among others. They have been critical not only of Government’s treatment of the unions but of severely limiting the workers. Franklyn has lambasted other unions for more or less selling out their memberships. According to Franklyn, “the workers need to tell the unions they are paying them, so carry out our mandate or else!”
Beyond the obvious intra-union cracks, there are perplexed and impoverished workers such as those unceremoniously dismissed on April 30, 2014 from the state-owned National Conservation Commission (NCC). Subsequently, the Employment Rights Tribunal (ERT) ruled that the workers represented by the NUPW and by the BWU “were unfairly dismissed” during Government’s public sector retrenchment. That retrenchment exercise saw more than 3,000 workers being sent home by a Government that had a short time before – perhaps as a 2013 election gimmick – promised that there would be no retrenchments in the public service.
Historically, labour has been capable of flexing its muscle when matters of existentialism (i.e. survival) arose. However, by February 2013, the unions, for the most part, moved around Barbados like centipedes with their stingers removed. Cowardice entered labour’s camp, and pitched a position suggesting that the principle of strike action and protest marches were not to be followed in the national interest. Really? The Government’s ploys, together with those hooked in the nets of ‘yardfowlism’, managed to squash solid resistance to the austere and draconian measures that became official DLP policy, consistent with recommendations from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Distinguished professor of Anthropology and Geography at City University of New York, David Harvey argued that: “The creation of this neoliberal system has entailed much destruction, not only of prior institutional frameworks and powers … but also of divisions of labour, social relations, welfare provisions, technological mixes, ways of life, attachments to the land, habits of the heart, ways of thought, and the like.”
Barbados may have been squeezed prior to 2008, but since then, the country is pinned and ready to be counted out unless labour re-emerges. To that extent, labour in Barbados remains inconsistent and relatively weak. In this closing stage of 2016, and moving into the precinct of a possible general election year, labour unions must be repositioned to reclaim potency and increase membership numbers.
The DLP is unlikely to fully appreciate the nuances and demands of labour. The current industrial relations climate was precariously shaped by those who peppered labour and pauperised workers for over five years. Indeed, it is not surprising to hear the government, business, and some within the unions continue with their misplaced berating of labour’s commitment.
Several have suggested that Barbadian workers’ input to the economy is far less than required, and that they have a poor work ethic punctuated with high absenteeism and low productivity. Employers’ associations contend that they are squelching with unproductivity in an era in which competition, productivity, and the trappings of neoliberalism go hand-in-hand to drive economic growth.
Guyson Mayers, a columnist writing in the Barbados Advocate, contends unproductivity of labour in Barbados is “the hint of our people’s laziness.” In addition, Mayers pointed at ‘poor management’ in a way not too dissimilar from the pronouncement made by the Minister of Finance in his 2016 budget wrap-up when he rebuked management and senior officials in the public sector.
There is greater merit if the Minister had cast attention on self-examination and self-criticism. Nonetheless, the prevailing conditions that are antithetical to labour have not gone unnoticed by the likes of Toni Moore and Caswell Franklyn. Moore in 2014 asserted that: “It is unfortunate that in Barbados … the message of productivity as a concept has been undermined and exploited by those who treat its relevance merely in pretentious and opportune terms.”
Franklyn asserts that: “This political inconvenience [of broadsiding workers] is being remedied by hiving off strategic segments of the Public Service and converting them into statutory boards, where a Minister of Government can sit in the background and manipulate, through his board, who would be hired, promoted or fired.”
These statements represent serious indictments on the current administration, and arguably, put a stain on all preceding administrations whose intent was adverse or hostile to workers and labour.
Russian intellectual Leon Trotsky argued that “the character of a society is determined by the character of its economy.” He further contended that “the character of its economy is determined by its means of productive labour.” Likewise, the 2014 report The National Employment Policy of Barbados agreed that “there is a direct inescapable linkage between employment and the state of the economy.”
The national fight has got to be both spontaneous and orchestrated against the wretched dilemma of institutionalised incompetence and political disruption. Today’s politicians and labour must accept that Barbados’ best chances for soaring, both economically and as a society, still abound in building human capital and providing opportunities for the nation’s workers.
(Dr George C Brathwaite is a part-time lecturer in Political Science at the UWI-Cave Hill Campus, a political consultant, and up until recently, he was editor of Caribbean Times (Antigua).