Columns

A labour beyond just production

Lance Neita

Sunday, October 07, 2018

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WHEN late Prime Minister Michael Manley asked Jamaica to forego the holiday trappings and put work into Labour Day, in 1972, it was a seize-the-moment invitation that gripped the country in an emotional swell and garnered immediate national support. Just about every Jamaican got caught up in the new Labour Day frenzy, even nationals living abroad, and hardware stores made a killing selling out their stocks of machetes, hoes and shovels.

As part of the British Empire, Jamaica had historically celebrated May 24 as a public holiday to mark Queen Victoria's birthday. This holiday was known to us as Empire Day. But by the 1960s we were no longer seeing Empire Day as relevant to Jamaica, and in 1961 then Chief Minister Norman Manley proposed replacing Empire Day with a new holiday, Labour Day.

This new holiday was to be a commemoration of the labour riots of 1938 led by Alexander Bustamante.

In 1972 Prime Minister Michael Manley changed the focus to volunteerism by emphasising the importance of labour to the development of Jamaica. Heeding the prime minister's call, 600 projects were identified across the island, with the Government embarking on a beautification effort along the Palisadoes Road.

Since then there has been no Labour Day holiday for me. Labour Day 'Manley style' became fertile ground for bauxite industry community projects and has been so for the most part of my career, ever since that first call in 1972.

With my foot planted firmly in the industry, my first Labour Day was a huge project conceptualised by Derrick Rochester, who was then Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth South Eastern, and Alpart's General Manager Jim Sparkman.

Along with Alpart employees and hundreds of community residents from Nain and surrounding districts we laid miles and miles of pipe leading from Alpart's wells into Nain and nearby corridors — the very good idea being to provide water for the rain-starved areas around the alumina plant.

Like all subsequent Labour Days in the country, the project was a fun event with plenty of curried goat and water(s), with the company and community wrapping it up in festive style in what was a meaningful community relations A-class project.

I had a double dip Labour Day as that afternoon I raced into Kingston to join my former Jamaica Tourist Board colleagues at their fun project in Port Royal where, I believe, after IP's Lounge and Gloria's catering, we managed to clean up some of the historical buildings like Fort Charles (but not the Giddy House) in similar office and community residents bonding arrangements.

Other projects come to mind, some related to the bauxite industry and others in the private and public sector. In one single day, May 25, 1992, I remember a massive tree-planting exercise at Kaiser Bauxite's Tobolski mining complex, when the company and residents got together to plant 15,000 trees in what must have been the largest-ever Labour Day (private sector) operation undertaken in Jamaica.

Some 100 employees, supported by over 200 citizens from nearby Inverness, Alexandria, Tobolski, Lincoln, Lime Tree Gardens, and Brown's Town, laboured that day. The teams — led by General Manager Ray Gendron; Resident Manager Frazer Perry; and supervisors John Gordon, Cyril Gooden, Selvyn Woodhouse, and Ian Saunders — planted cedar, mahogany, Spanish elm, citrus, avocado, and ackee trees on 15 acres of mined-out lands.

Unfortunately, many of those trees have been lost, not from mining, I hasten to say, but to vandalism, drought, and caretaker residents moving to greener pastures over the years.

Bauxite was one of the pioneers of corporate social responsibility in Jamaica. When the mining, railroading and shipping equipment and machinery came into the rural areas in the 1950s, companies brought with them their community and public relations outfits and integrated these departments into the operations and management of their businesses.

The companies had quickly come to the realisation that establishing sustainable relationships with their host communities and securing their support was a common-sense approach amounting to best business practices in a multinational environment.

History records a long list of corporate contributions made by Alcan, Reynolds, and Kaiser Bauxite from the early days. The companies went on to become integrally involved in education, health, sports, agriculture, and community development. These are the categories that provide a natural and logical outlet for the exercise of social responsibility and good corporate citizenship. Labour Day, obviously, was a natural fit for all the companies working as they did in rural areas.

Although toned down somewhat from the enthusiasm of the early Manley days, Labour Day continues to provide opportunities for companies to display social conscience and extraordinary corporate social responsibility. As an extension to the Labour Day concept, Noranda Bauxite in St Ann has this year taken an employee presence into schools with a focus on active employee involvement.

Discovery Bay All-Age and the Waltham Abbey Primary are two schools located in the company's operating area that have benefited from this 'hands-on' Labour Day approach. Discovery Bay's Infant Department play area was given a paint job of its playground by an employee team led by Vice-President and General Manager Delroy Dell on Labour Day 2018, while Waltham Abbey was assisted with the construction of a recreation/reading area last month, September 19.

The Waltham Abbey project went further than local employee teams. Leadership teams from Noranda Bauxite in Discovery Bay were joined by leadership teams from the Noranda Gramercy alumina plant in Louisiana, as well as ARC Fused Alumina located in France to come together on September 19 in typical Labour Day style. This mix had an international flavour which was unique to such work projects.

How significant was this on-the-ground involvement of overseas corporate level leaders in a Jamaican project in our backyard?

According to John Habisreitinger, the executive president of Noranda, “We were highly impressed with students' knowledge and awareness of the bauxite industry, the number of students who had relatives working at the nearby bauxite plant, their interest in developing careers with Noranda, and the warm welcome we received from the community.”

Most significant to my way of thinking, however, was the further comment from the overseas Noranda team that, “We gained a higher appreciation of the social and community interplay, mutual respect and partnership opportunities that exist between bauxite and its operating area communities in Jamaica.”

Certainly today such acts and expressions of social responsibility have become cemented as part of any smart business model in Jamaica and elsewhere. The media carry almost daily reports of business sector sponsorship of early childhood education, benefit programmes for the disadvantaged, scholarships, charitable projects, sports, youth development, and community upliftment, to name a few.

According to Dr Henley Morgan in a column in this newspaper last week, “There is a growing realisation that business has a responsibility that goes beyond blithely buying, selling and making a profit. Business has a corporate social responsibility.

“The emergence of an enlightened form of capitalism — embracing the tenets of corporate social responsibility — has had a positive effect on businesses generally, and Jamaican businesses in particular. This is evidenced by the plethora of corporate foundations that together give hundreds of millions of dollars to social causes and programmes.”

When social responsibility is recognised as part of a company's business model it can attract positive publicity, help attract and retain top talent, and improve relationships with customers and their communities. The benefits can be far and wide, including improved labour and community relationships, industrial peace, image respect, and bottom line profitability.

Morgan quotes from the foreword to Stuart Hart's best-selling book, Capitalism at the Crossroads: “Companies can reap incredible growth while sowing tremendous improvement in people's lives.”

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant with one wife. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.

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