From general observation, there is a crying need in Barbados for a sustained public education campaign to promote a high level of public awareness and understanding of fundamental economic changes taking place around us and their potential or real impact on aspects of daily life.
One area where this need is particularly evident relates to the changing nature of employment.
Work is so indispensable to meeting one’s needs and determining one’s quality of life that keeping tabs on significant developments in the job market should be on high on everyone’s priority list. However, this is hardly ever the case.
Worldwide, the concept of work has undergone a fundamental redefinition in the last quarter century. This change has been driven, for the most part, by increased competition among producers of goods and services and also technological innovation within the contemporary framework of globalization.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the mainstream view was that once a person landed certain jobs, especially within the public sector and at certain firms, it was his or hers for life until retirement if that was the intention.
Today, this idea of permanent employment no longer stands. Instead, it is now expected that a person, in the course of a lifetime, will hold several short and medium term jobs.
While this new reality may be hard to accept, it is unlikely to change, leaving adjustment and adaptation as the main options available to most people. This underscores the need to have a good awareness and understanding of the new work environment to enhance one’s capacity to cope and make sound choices.
Who should assume responsibility in Barbados for sponsoring any massive public education programme in this regard? Ideally, it should be a tripartite effort involving Government, the private sector and trade unions as the three main players in the economy. There is also a critical supporting role for the media, seeing that it wields considerable influence in setting the public agenda and also moulding the perspectives of the general populace on domestic and global issues.
Knowledge has always been the source of power. A lot of the anxiety and sense of hopelessness and helplessness exhibited by some in our population, especially in the relation to the future, arguably stems from not knowing and, as a result, feeling a lack of control over the direction of their lives. In such circumstances, people can easily find themselves overwhelmed by change for which there would have been some advance warning, but the signs were ignored.
As the present century was dawning, American economist Robert Reich, who served as Secretary of Labour in the administration of former President Bill Clinton, penned a highly informative book about the changing nature of job market within the context of globalization. Entitled, The Future of Success: Work and Life in the New Economy, the book provides so many valuable insights and can be considered required reading for anyone looking to be successful today in navigating the ebbs and flows of the modern job market.
Among other arguments, Reich posits that in the 21st century environment, people will move from being “employees” in the traditional sense to being “sellers of individual services” to employers. “Even if you are called a full-time employee,” he reasons, “you are becoming less of an employee of an organization than you are a seller of your services to particular customers and clients . . .”
There is also the emerging issue of robots replacing human labour which we have not yet started to seriously address in Barbados. The scenario Reich has presented, in which the emphasis has shifted to the individual, raises obvious questions about the future of trade unions. Their traditional model is based on labour unity and collective bargaining which, as Reich’s analysis suggests, are directly challenged by the changing nature of employment conditions.
Little wonder unions, not only in Barbados but also elsewhere, have increasingly complained in recent years about marginalization at the bargaining table with employers. It is quite obvious that it can no longer be business as usual. The challenge facing trade unions is to rethink and adjust their business model if they wish to remain relevant and ensure their survival into the future.
Uncertain but interesting times undoubtedly lie ahead given the dynamic changes taking place around us. In the circumstances, knowledge and understanding of the contributing factors, especially by working people, can be
a source of tremendous power as it has always been throughout human history.