Every Barbadian, after completing his or her formal education, traditionally dreamed of finding full-time employment. The ideal job would have fitted in with career aspirations, offered good pay and had contract terms allowing reasonable security, and also provided considerable scope for upward mobility for a fulfilling personal and professional life.
Such a dream was largely attainable, especially in the first two to three decades of Independence, when the economy was developing, globalization as we know it today did not exist, and the domestic market was largely protected for Barbadians and insulated from developments taking place in the wider world.
In the globalized environment of today, which is forcing almost every country to look outwards instead of inwards, the nature of employment is undergoing fundamental change from which Barbados is not immune. The change is as a result of technological innovation, growing competition among producers of goods and services, and the need for these important actors in the economy to have flexibility in the market in order to attain efficiency, achieve consistent profitability and remain in business.
A major casualty of these changes is full-time employment, as we have come to know it. In other words, the kind of employment which Barbadians traditionally would have considered as a job for life once the conditions were right. In its place today, casual and part-time work seems rapidly to be becoming the new normal. In this context, the traditional relationship between employer and employee is also fundamentally changing, which naturally raises questions too about the future of trade unions unless they adjust and adapt to the new realities.
Barbados is already seeing signs of these fundamental changes which are more pronounced in much larger countries. In Australia, for example, ABC, the public broadcaster, recently reported that almost 90 per cent of the jobs created over the last 12 months were categorized as either “casual” or “part-time”. Experts are predicting that this trend is likely to accelerate in the years ahead and spread across the world.
Barbadians should take note and inform themselves of these changes because of the direct implications for the workplace of the future, given the globalized nature of the environment in which we operate. What are trade unions, as workers’ organizations, doing to prepare their members for this new environment through education and awareness programmes or is it for them a case of continuing business as usual?
Kevin Wheeler, who heads the U.S.-based Future of Talent Institute, tours the world delivering presentations on the changing nature of the workplace and how employment might look in years to come. ABC reported him as predicting that the next two decades will be a time of “significant industrial argument” and at the heart of this will be what he described as casualization of the workforce.
‘I think the writing is clear: more and more people will be in this contingent space, and we’re going to have to see how laws evolve to accept that and to provide at least a light level of protection around that,” Wheeler said. The ‘contingent space’ refers to workers employed on non-permanent contracts.
Non-permanent employees have always been part of the labour market. However, in previous generations and in most industries, they were largely supplementary to the main body of workers. Wheeler estimated that in the United States, roughly between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of the workforce is now non-permanent, a dramatic change from ten years ago when an estimated 90 per cent of the workforce was in permanent, full-time employment.
To give an idea of the trend in Australia, Bureau of Statistics labour force data for the month of July indicated that the number of full time positions decreased by around 45,000, while part-time employment numbers went up by more than 71,000. Given what is already happening in Barbados and the Caribbean, this trend is likely to become more pronounced in the years ahead.
The downside of part-time employment is that workers will have less security and fewer benefits but, unlike the case with full-time employment, they will have the freedom to choose their place of work, hours of work, what they actually do for work, who they choose to work with or for. In other words, work will become highly individualized. Will this approach to work signal the death knell of trade unions which have historically operated on the basis of unity and solidarity among groups of workers at the workplace?
Barbadians should take interest and following these global trends so that they are fully prepared for the eventuality instead of being taken completely by surprise. It looks as if an interesting future truly lies ahead in relation to the whole question of employment.