Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados TODAY Inc.
by Dr Ronnie Yearwood
A few topics are filling the airways at the moment. The Republic. Mandatory vaccines. Labour issues. I have been talking about the matter of the Republic for months now, and I will return to it in future columns as that debate is now heating up.
I want to quickly correct some of the propaganda and misconception being pushed by allies of the Prime Minister before I address the main issue of this week’s column, which is about the rise of contract workers.
A Republic can come in different forms. The option presented by the PM at the end of a recent speech is simply that, one option. Further, the fact the PM has not published details of her preferred option, but gave us a few words at the end of a speech, as I have said before, makes the entire process of transitioning to a Republic disrespectful and disingenuous.
It is also downright folly to say that Barbadians had a say in the Cox and Forde Commissions, when frankly, people have died, some of us were not born, some of us now have children of our own and the world has changed significantly.
The point is simple, why should we be stuck with an opinion that may now be dated and stale. It is ironic that a PM who prides herself on being progressive, modern and global thinks the “like it or lump” approach to Barbados becoming a republic is the way to do it.
Contract and short-term workers
It has not gone unnoticed that at the moment, through a bevy of consultants and external hires, we now have two sets of “public” services in Barbados. Both being paid to do the same work when as a country we are struggling financially. The Government and the private sector are hiring short term and/or on contract, and not paying National Insurance.
Barbados TODAY’s Business paper on 22 July 2021,
stated that “investigations revealed that the National Conservation Commission (NCC) has not been paying in NIS for its over 360 employees in the national clean-up programme which was launched in 2019.
Reports also indicate that the Ministry of People Empowerment and Elder Affairs has allegedly followed the trend and is not contributing to NIS for some newer workers in the Home Help Programme.”
Of course, flexibility from short term and contract work is part of the labour market, but what about the issues caused by its widespread use? Job insecurity has also always been a part of the labour market, if we think about the seasonal nature of agriculture or construction and parts of the culture industries, but it seems to extend to the entire labour market now. There are a number of concerns with the growth of short-term and contract work rather than traditional “employment”.
Issues with contract and short-term work
First, such workers may end up working many short-term jobs on a rolling basis, so over the lifetime of working, they do not build up any form of pension. The private sector and Government agencies may be engaging in this type of employment to reduce costs now and may feel like they are winning.
However, long term we all lose when those workers come to retirement. The Government will end up, so that means all of us as taxpayers, funding the retirement for those short-term and contract workers, in some way or the other.
Second, hiring short term or contract workers creates uneven hiring practices and puts such workers at the mercy of the employer. It is worrying that the union, and in particular the main union whose leader is now part of the Government, appears unwilling or unable to speak to these practices.
Perhaps it’s because this Government is one of the main offenders. This Government is constantly hiring consultants and advisors and creating committees (whose members get paid, directly or indirectly), rather than having those in the official public service do the Government’s work. Ironically, the Ministers in this Government just passed laws to protect their right to paid vacation as “employees”.
Third, some businesses, being good corporate citizens, who do not engage in the practice of hiring large numbers of short term or contract workers to reduce overheads, end up having higher costs, thus making them less competitive. It means that businesses engaging in good practices such as paying NIS, having health insurance, paid vacation, accepting severance liability and providing pension plans are being punished.
This is now very prevalent in the construction industry and many positions that used to be filled by “employees” are now done under “contract”. One wonders how much longer those good corporate citizens will continue before they will be forced to join the farce in order to survive.
Getting the balance
The elephant in the room that no one seems to talk about, including the unions, is that labour laws that are too onerous become a barrier to facilitating employment and labour laws that provide for ultra-flexible employment create job insecurity and can create unsafe working conditions.
As mentioned, even Government seems to be now circumventing its labour laws by hiring consultants and contractors outside of the official public service.
This Government even wants to go further and convert some existing public service positions to contract workers. There were a lot of announcements about making school principals contract workers but as with most things that the current Minister of Education tries to do, it ended in abject failure, even before it started.
We have to strike a balance between protecting workers and employers feeling that it is in their interest to hire traditional “employees.” The evidence at the moment is that the right balance is not being struck.
Dr Ronnie Yearwood is a lecturer in law, lawyer and social commentator. Email: [email protected]