The following is the second part of the feature address, themed Together Towards Tomorrow, given by outgoing general secretary Sir Roy Trotman at the 73rd annual delegates’ conference of the Barbados Workers’ Union at Solidarity House last Saturday, August 30.
Now more than 21 years have passed. Those who will may ask the valid question: did Barbados at any level benefit from the [tripartite social dialogue] initiative? Did the workers derive any benefits? What of the owners of capital? Was our nation able to speak in more compelling tones at home and abroad, and was this a plus or a minus?
I will be the first to admit that the workers’ side in the partnership had on several occasions to pull back, as it were, from the brink when it would have been more exciting and exhilarating and costly to adopt the elemental response which impressed itself on our organization.
My more senior advisers joined me in agreeing instead to suffer with little comment the vicious barbs aimed for the more sensitive pasts of our anatomy. And yet we knew and demonstrated that we remained faithful throughout to those visions we held of a better Barbados, a caring sharing countryside where the fields and hills around were truly our own. Thus we sought in our treatment with Government and capital to ring-beam the vital interest of the worker.
For example, we have insisted over the years that “labour shall not be required to vary the benefits and conditions which it currently enjoys, unless it is for immediate general improvement or if, by any such variations, labour assists in effecting the long-term improvement in the conditions of those employed and creates jobs for the unemployed . . .”.
We also spent considerable time, but we were successful in establishing the worker’s right to social dialogue at the workplace, particularly when his given rights or benefits were challenged. That right to prior consultation and the obligation for the parties to meet to see whether other means of handling financial or structural set backs, rather than retrenchment, were important gains for the workers and for the Bajan community as a whole.
There were gains, too, from the efforts which were taken to have the entire nation meet at regular intervals to reflect not only on the economic growth of the country, but also the social development. In my view there were occasions when we were all made to feel that social justice was an attainable objective, and that bread, peace, democracy and equal opportunity were achievable.
Today we stand in reflection of that yesterday and we ask ourselves, I ask myself, whether we had been dreaming. Was there really a period of good change? Was it noticeable and measureable? Was it supernatural or could we honestly point to ourselves and say “yes”, it was natural; we did it and we can do it again?
Judging from our human recall, it must be admitted that there may have been several comics among us, but there were no comets seen; and yet, there was change. Our neighbours, even as we meet here, openly admit that Barbados, for a moment, followed an order that, even now, they are trying to emulate.
Larger countries across the globe have lauded us for our initiative. The ILO itself has not only studied our model of tripartite social dialogue towards a Social Partnership; but it has pointed us out as the good ILO model of tripartism in social dialogue.
The executive council of the Barbados Workers’ Union has decided thatt he matter of the Social Partnership should become an integral part of our discussions and our planning for the way forward. It is sound at this stage for us to examine the extent to which the BWU will be in a position to enter as freely and as willingly into those previous relationships. The question that has to be debated is whether we are satisfied in the Barbados Workers’ Union with the level of the relationship or, the extent to which the employer, as a body, is relating to the workers in what we perceived more than 20 years as a relationship which would help to grow the entire country.
Can we continue to be satisfied in circumstances where leaders of that said employers’ group, when it suits their purpose, will ridicule the Social Partnership and refuse to honour the commitments that that group gave to the partnership relationship two decades ago? And can we be serious in believing that there will be benefits for us when there is the frequency which we are now experiencing of employers who at the same time that they wish to be in the forefront of the dialogue, where the public is concerned, then find themselves in a position where they reject the very foundation stones of the partnership or treat them with disregard in one form or the other?
There are far too many examples which the Barbados Workers’ Union is forced to bring to the attention of the CLO, or as in the Public Service, is forced to bring to Government ministers, and, indeed, permanent secretaries in their various departments: where rights that have been accepted over time as rights of workers, where practices that have been honoured over time as practices over which there should be no dispute, where issues of that sort become the day-to-day occupation of our officials.
Several of those matters which could make the worker enjoy a more comfortable relationship at his place of work are becoming issues for confrontation; the work environment for some is being treated like a war zone.
It would take too much time on an occasion such as this one for the BWU publicly to recite all of those occasions and all of those issues which, put together, give the appearance that there are several employers, I do not say all, who seem to believe that the crisis we are currently experiencing presents an ample opportunity for them to push back the hands of time, take back by force those conditions and benefits that workers have struggled to earn, reduce the dignity of work, and the respect that the worker demands at the workplace.
If these matters –– dignity and respect and a voice –– if these things are not perceived as important, are not given the recognition that is necessary and the workers are put into positions where they recognize, or they suspect, that hostile efforts to reintroduce slavery in whatever form are being made, the end result for our recovery, the end result for our relationship, will be a foregone conclusion; but it will not be what the employer may be looking for.
It certainly is not what we think will make life better for all of us .Life will be better for all of us if we are in a position as a country to turn around our economic fortunes and to see ourselves return to a period of wealth creation. I believe that the employer class, those officials of Government who reject the workers’ rights and those workers among us who themselves may not believe fully in those rights must work together.
I believe that we will be making a serious mistake if we think that that turnaround can be done, and can be sustained, in circumstances where the worker does not feel confident that she or he is sharing in the fruits of that new wealth that will be created.
It is because the BWU is not satisfied that we are all showing, demonstrating that commitment; it is because we are confronted almost on a daily basis by areas and instances of anti-worker and anti-union initiatives by employers and by officials in the Public Service, including ministers of Government; it is because of these unsettling circumstances that we have before us the resolution which I wish to share with our public and to discuss.
That resolution is not one that says that the Barbados Workers’ Union wants to abandon those courses which we adopted 20 years ago; it does not say that this organization believes that it was duped at the outset and that it remained blindfolded. We knew that there would be times where the partners would endeavour each to get maximum benefits for their groups; but we were of the view that there were safeguards built into the partnership which allowed the other two sides to pull back the third side where the third side was going off the rail.
We believed then, and we still can show, how we have in the past been able to re-establish balance and redirection for the partnership when one or other of us was not travelling along a route that we considered to be satisfactory. Today, however, both at the level of the public sector, including with Government officials, and bureaucrats and at the level of the private sector, the BWU is made to feel that its members are important when they can give but when they demand that they share, then they get the sense that they are not welcome.
The resolution reads in part:
Recalling that the dignity and respect due to the working person was acclaimed at the Declaration Of Philadelphia when members of the ILO in 1944 declared, inter alia, that:
(a) Labour is not a commodity.
(b) Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere.
(c) The ILO is charged with helping to raise standards of living and provide a basic income for all;
noting that with the increasing importance being given to trade and to banking that the value of the worker and the wealth of his/her labour brought those fundamental work place principles under duress; and
recognising how new efforts have had to be found by the ILO,
using its unique character, role and structure to maintain the fight for fundamental principles and rights at work, including:
The right to associate freely and to bargain collectively;
The elimination of forced or compulsory labour;
The elimination of child labour;
The elimination of workplace discrimination;
satisfied however that the new wave of globalization and trade liberalisation with the proliferation of multinational companies, required that the ILO’s message should be made to reverberate across the entire United Nations system; and
being aware that the heads of state and governments at the 2005 United Nations World Summit stated that “we strongly support fair globalization and resolve to make the goals of full and productive employment and decent work for a1l, including women and young people, a central objective of our relevant national and international policies as well as our national development strategies”; and
conscious that this UN commitment has provided asignificant moral flooring for workers’ unrelenting efforts to obtain social justice in a work environment which is subject to daily slippage and erosion;
aware that the Barbados Workers’ Union has to position itself where it can usefully exercise all of its influence within its extended family relationships to maximise its benefits through social dialogue;
being resolute that the BWU should maintain its practical critical support for a tripartite social partnership based on ILO principles and geared towards the resolve of the Declaration Of Philadelphia (1944) and UN World Summit Resolution (2005).
We are going very soon to embark on a change of guard, and those new guards are of the view that they should use as their theme Together Towards Tomorrow. In that theme, they have not been thinking only of the workers going forward; they have dared to believe that, in that movement forward, they may be able to count on Government officials, whoever the Government is, and public sector officials, whoever they are by name, to work fervently to govern that relationship.
They are of the view that the employers have as much at stake as they do, and those employers should be willing to recognize that none of us is able to walk the road alone. And so they dared to believe that there can be a return to togetherness.
But if that will be so, and if the Barbados Workers’ Union’s new executive is indicating by its resolutions a willingness to stand ready to extend an arm of friendship, an arm of Social Partnership, it must be recognized that it cannot be on the terms that currently exist. The BWU is of the view that after more than 70 years this organization the BWU should not be struggling all over again for simple things like the right to represent workers.
We should not be having occasions where, as is happening now, employers are pretending that the Employment Rights Act gives them a right or an opportunity, or, perhaps an excuse to avoid relating to the union and to bypass the collective agreement, because the law by some sentence is not seen by them as a piece of legislation which is fitting together. They are using the occasion as one where they might reintroduce conditions of employment less salutary, less healthy, than they were a decade or more before.
This conference in August, 2014, represents an occasion where the BWU is signalling that it is proceeding under a new team to travel the course for the enhancement and improvement of workers’ conditions. We wish to signal that that new course can be a course where the parties can work together.
The BWU is willing to exercise functional cooperation and to give critical support whether it is to employers or whether it is to governing parties, but the message has to be clearly made today and into the future that too much that is not clear, too much that is hostile, too much that is unfriendly towards the worker, is being demonstrated during these days.
And if we are intending to move forward, then one must not expect that there will be “give” by the workers and take, but only take by governments or by the employers. The charge, the challenge, the major question is: is Barbados, and that is to say, are those other players in the Social Partnership prepared equally to indicate that they are ready to walk together with us towards tomorrow?