Social dialogue for development

Thousands of Barbadians are getting into the festive mood although the sweet songs of calypso and the rhythms of bashment soca will hardly drive away the burdensome taxes that are pounding down on the population. The social commentary will not minimize the concerns that Barbadians have about their troubled economy and society; if anything, the constant reminder indicates that change is necessary.

As it stands today, Barbados is troubled by low economic growth, a stinging fiscal deficit, increases in the incidence of poverty, an unemployment rate that is still unacceptably high – particularly among the youth, rising gun-related crimes, and a preponderance of socioeconomic inequalities persists. Key economic drivers for growth appear to have become elusive and investments have slowed significantly.

Simultaneously, workers and their trade unions are somewhat weakened by their abandonment of total solidarity, and may even be scapegoats for capitalists’ interests. Clearly, the Government is overwhelmed by the daunting challenges and inundated by calls for improved performances.

Cabinet Ministers have resorted to increased bombast and propaganda while referring to one or more citizens as enemies of the state. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear Government spokespersons and elements in the business class peppering labour with blame for the insufficiency of national productivity.

Ironically, a few days ago, the Minister of Labour implied that the unions were in denial, and misrepresented the facts on not getting salary increases. That Minister suggested that the trade unions are now becoming part of the problem given a reluctance to accept that the Minister of Finance was following the best option under ‘grim’ macroeconomic circumstances.

In cruel mockery, it was none other than Prime Minister Stuart pontificating that: “It is better … to be going to work every day and having to deal with a higher price here or higher price there than not to be going to work and having to deal with the same prices anyhow. … If you are not going to work you can’t deal with the prices at all. You can’t get the things you want.”

Such twisted logic almost always concludes that their ways of conducting national affairs are the only viable actions holding sway and gravitas. Nonetheless, Barbadians know that talk is cheap. Getting by one day to the next is becoming far more expensive for the average man and woman, the worker and unemployed, businesses both large and small, and the abled and disabled.

Unless Barbados finds and uses the appropriate tools to ease the plight of the nation, eventually all may be consumed by the economic setbacks and societal inertia that have visited this country for too long. Barbados needs to discuss whatever are the problems in a truthful, forthright, and non-partisan manner. A useful starting point is the tri-partite ‘Social Partnership’; this mechanism offers the opportunity for meaningful social dialogue.

Today’s political and civic leaders have tended to send lots of mixed messages, many of which are overly politicized. The actual content of divisive communications is as much disconcerting as the difficulties facing the island. Barbadians have sacrificed much during the past five years. Yet, many feeling the woe, perceive that sacrifice has rolled over into punishment for electing a less than stellar legislature.

The overall credibility of the current administration has waned with every piece of spin and misrepresentation. Some persons prefer to drift along until the ‘pocketed’ date is given by Prime Minister Stuart, although it is not a logical approach given that the wait for elections can be legally and politically extended for selfish reasons.

Regardless, compromise is necessary in the national quest to overcome burdens of the day because ominous clouds are already on the doorstep. Through the Social Partnership, there can be a rebuilding of trust among local stakeholders. This factor leads to some questions for which the answers can again give Barbadians the hope for progress and benefits.

What useful and pragmatic lessons are extractable and usable from the Social Partnership and purposeful social dialogue? What can stakeholders do to urgently redirect the Barbados economy and society on a pathway to prosperity and justice? How many more groups ought to comprise a workable partnership of cooperation?

One recalls former Prime Minister Owen Arthur contending that‘the social partnership should never become unwieldy and, should be able to evolve to address challenges as they arise’. Surely,  the challenges today are serious and Barbados must consider broadening the partnership of social dialogue. Included in the decision-making process should be the youth, the church, and other important cogs in civil society. These segments of society cannot remain on the periphery.

Lo and behold, Barbadians learnt last Friday of Prime Minister Stuart’s confession in which the citizens’ livelihoods have badly floundered. Stuart would say nebulously that in time to come “life will get somewhere near back to the normal to which we have been accustomed.”Clearly, the current administration is widely adrift from Barbadian norms, and needs all the help it can get.

Despite the resident tendency to reject those with an alternative plan of action, the administration is desperate. Whichever political party forms the next administration, regardless of any premonitions, it must rely on the potency of working together, re-building trust, and doing the right thing predicated solely on the national interest.

In fact, this is precisely why the Barbados Social Partnership was formulated. The severe economic and corresponding challenges of the early 1990’s, prompted a phase of innovation that was adaptively borrowed from the Irish. The Social Partnership was envisaged to function for the national good, and saw the Government, employers’ representatives and trade unions’ representatives gravitate towards social dialogue.

By the end of 1991, it became a worry that Barbados was forced to resort to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for assistance. The Social Partnership became ‘a core strategy to avoid the prescriptions’ advocated by the IMF, and to ward off devaluation of the Barbados dollar. Subsequently, in 1993 after gaining consensus in which mutual respect and interests led to ‘a paradigm shift in the concerts and practices of governance’, the partnership established the first ‘Prices and Incomes Protocol’.

The tripartite partnership and the ensuing protocols determined a package of ‘measures to reverse the gradual erosion of the country’s competitiveness’ by addressing specific economic problems and their social consequences. Despite the very austere and trying circumstances Barbados had to undergo, the framework of social dialogue helped to shape a national discourse for development over the next 10 to 15 years. Social dialogue was fused together through interdependence and cooperation. Importantly, the nation was committed to seeing off the worse. The partnership would eventually guide Barbados to safety.

Two Cave Hill academics – Wayne Charles-Soverall and Jamal Khan – wrote an insightful article indicating that the willingness of stakeholders to engage in social dialogue, the willingness to achieve national consensus based on pragmatic solutions, the ability to place national interests above all else, and the resolve to implement bold decisions were crucial in forging cooperation among entities normally focussed and sometimes hemmed in due to their differing interests.

Today, there can be little doubt that Barbados is exposed to another string of ‘socioeconomic and political crises’ which can derail national development. These challenges must be urgently and adeptly addressed beginning with responsible and honest social dialogue.

(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a political consultant.

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