We will be the first to stress the major part that labour has played in the development of Barbados. The committed and patriotic industry of thousands
of Barbadians in the pre- and post-colonial history of the island, whether at home or abroad, has served Barbados tremendously.
But, of course, labour has not operated in a vacuum, though the arguments and protestations of some would try to give the impression labour is the be-all and end-all of progress made in Barbados over the years. Government, sometimes in spite of itself, and, to a major extent, private business have been at the forefront of the island’s development.
Notwithstanding that, there is much to be desired in the relationship among Government, labour and the private sector. It might be a harsh reality that the private sector’s principal concern is the bottom line –– profits. But the other reality is that without private sector profits and profitability, labour suffers.
And when labour suffers, governments falter and often fall.
Chief executive officer of the Small Business Association, Lynette Holder, has done labour a monumental service by pointing out what we all know but often pretend not to. Indeed, it is politically correct to pontificate on the great contributions of labour without highlighting endemic shortcomings that serve to undermine the very progress to which the tripartite collective has contributed. Miss Holder addressed a very pertinent situation at the recent Caribbean launch of the Global Business Roundtable at the Hilton Barbados Resort.
She was speaking on the work ethics of Barbadians within the context of The World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Competiveness Report that placed Barbados at number 55 out of 144 countries –– down from 47 in 2014 and 44 in 2013.
“The Global Competiveness Report 2015, 2014 and 2013, they all have been saying very similar things about Barbados. When you look at the top three reasons why we are not seen as a competitive state, it is because we have a problem with Government bureaucracy, we have a problem with access to finance, and thirdly, but most importantly, the report cited a poor work ethic,” Miss Holder stated.
She queried: “How is it that we can boast of being highly literate, we can boast of having an educational system that is second to none, but yet we have a poor work ethic in our workforce?”
Miss Holder continued: “We are producing a set of people with graduate and postgraduate degrees and with honours, [and] we are producing a set of people that when we look at their resumé they can tell you about all of the intellectual training they have gone through and all of the degrees that they have amassed.
“But simple things like manners, simple things like respect, simple things like being able to have the kind of work behaviour, the kind of ethic that we would require in our workplaces are missing. That tells me that we have some introspection to do . . . .”
In a perfect world, or maybe one with greater thought applied to national circumstances, one would have expected that with the need for productivity being preached from the mountain top, our standards would not be dropping but would be showing improvement. But no, the opposite seems the case.
Whether we accept it or not, these are not times of plenty and we cannot operate, behave or function as though they are. And whether we like it or not, capital is a major component of the survival of business and labour must be accommodated –– and respected –– within the restrictions under which capital operates.
Labour cannot, and should not, be allowed to stretch capital beyond the realms of reasonableness to undermine its very existence. As crude as it might sound, within any capitalist sytem there will always be labour. Capital can be a difficult commodity to access, maintain and increase, and should be valued zealously.
It is within this context that labour unions must show their maturity and be cognizant that as much as they want to maintain their membership, if they stifle or undermine business, their membership will suffer. Unfortunately, the labour union pays little, if any attention, to productivity. They were not created for that reason and it is one of the weaknesses of the labour movement that they do not consistently tie worker productivity to their representation of labour.
Of course the labour movement will say that productivity is always on its agenda. But that is akin to Lucifer saying he is concerned about souls. Of course he is, but for what reason?
Some studies have stated empirically that labour union wage gains lower business profitability unless offset by productivity enhancements in the workplace or higher prices in the product market. The institution of higher prices, especially where commodities are not essentials, is fraught with risk. Productivity is the “easier” method of engendering profitability.
But Barbadians in the private, and especially the public sector, are still short-changing employers, taking excessive sick leave and patronizing folly such as Fyah De Wuk fetes when they should be on their jobs.
When one is confronted with non-productive workers who are protected by unions, one can hardly differentiate between the tip and the iceberg.