For some years now, there has been a hue and cry about unproductivity in Barbados and the finger has invariably been pointed at the Barbadian worker. But, how fair is it to blame the workforce for our failure to increase productivity to an acceptable level? Is it that workers are lazy or are they demotivated?
High levels of productivity require a combination of effective management, clear objectives, motivated workers and adequate resources. Breakdown will result if one or more of these ingredients are missing or in short supply.
Too often in the plantation model which we have followed for centuries, the expectation has been that workers will produce even in an environment of inconsiderate management, inadequate resources, lack of incentives and, generally, below par working conditions. Too many managers function as bosses who lord it over employees and show little or no respect for their needs. Workers often feel insecure and unappreciated and safety and health concerns take second place to the bottom line. Worker representation is seen by many employers as a humbug and stumbling blocks are deliberately placed in the way of workers wishing to join a trade union.
Government needs to enact legislation mandating the right to be affiliated to a union and end the archaic practice of a head count before recognising a bargaining agent.
To enhance productivity, workers need to be given ongoing training. An untrained worker cannot be reasonably blamed for the failure to achieve excellence in the workplace. The onus is on the enterprise, whether government or private, to provide opportunities for appropriate training and education.
The public service once referred to by one of our national heroes as “an army of occupation”, is the whipping boy for those concerned about poor productivity. But have we ever stopped to consider how inefficient systems contribute to the unsatisfactory work ethic we often complain about?
We have taken light years to modernise the public service, only now moving to digitise critical institutions like the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the polyclinics. Barbadians still cannot pay taxes and fees for licences online; instead, cashiers have to contend with long lines of persons waiting to renew drivers licences. Even though road tax has been abolished, vehicle owners must still trek to the few branches of the Licensing Authority armed with proof of having paid motor insurance.
Numbers of experienced and capable public officers are overlooked for promotion in favour of persons with political connections and academic credentials, with the resultant disillusionment and frustration. Productivity suffers and outstanding officers bide their time until the earliest opportunity for retirement presents itself.
It seems too difficult for the powers that be to realise that credentialism in the form of university degrees does not necessarily equate to competence. It is wrong to have experienced staff with the expertise required for senior positions acting for inordinate periods of time and then appointing university graduates, who know little about what the jobs entail, to the positions. Worse, the replaced officers are often expected to teach those who have now been made senior to them. No wonder the morale in the public service is at an all-time low. We need to revert to the policy of promotion based on qualifications and experience.
Political interference has been the bane of the public service, particularly the statutory corporations. The boast that “the Minister sent me, so you can’t touch me” has done untold harm to efficiency and productivity. If we want to achieve productivity in the government sector, we have to abandon the tendency of Ministers to pad State-owned agencies with party supporters and allow management to manage.
On the issue of occupational health and safety, greater attention needs to be given to a large number of “sick” buildings owned or rented by the government. Workers exposed to mould, fungi and foul smells emanating from dirty air conditioning units cannot perform at their best. Schools without adequate fencing and security personnel are dangerous places for both staff and students.
If truth be told, the vast majority of teachers, policemen, nurses, firemen and other government employees perform excellently, especially given the conditions under which they have to serve. They cannot be fairly accused of being unproductive.
In conclusion, I do not buy the oft-repeated view that Barbadian workers are lazy and do not give a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. The quantity and quality of output of many employees put the lie to that claim. What is required to enhance productivity is for employers in both the public and private sectors to provide safe and healthy environments, respect workers’ rights and pay fair wages. Workers are not robots, and must, therefore, be motivated to produce. Decent work is what will encourage the 21st-century employee to be productive.