Jamaicans paying the price for poor relations between Government and its employees

Cutting off water to the vast majority of the country is, essentially, an act of sabotage that should not be countenanced, even as we acknowledge that National Water Commission (NWC) employees have been left hanging by the Government for an unacceptably long time — at least a decade, based on our recollection.

In any country where citizens are respected by their Government, negotiations affecting the economic well-being of people should not be so protracted. The Government, therefore, bears a lot of blame in this matter and should spare no effort to resolve this issue.

For too long the relationship between employers, especially the Government, and employees has been adversarial. Indeed, Prime Minister Andrew Holness made reference to this unfortunate reality in an address Wednesday in which he pointed out that this antagonistic relationship between workers and employers has played a role in Jamaica’s evolution as an independent country. “But that past,” he said, “does not have to define our future.” He is, of course, correct.

Indeed, as Mr Holness also pointed out, Jamaica has made significant improvement in the conduct of industrial relations, and the trade unions should be commended for the level of maturity they have exhibited, at least over the past 30 years.

Generally, the country has not been subjected to wild cat strikes, as was the case for decades through to the 90s. In fact, there were a number of instances in times past when businesses, frustrated by strikes, pulled down their shutters and moved to other countries.

We don’t expect that Jamaica will have that experience again. However, we are concerned that conditions in the country, if not properly handled, could lead to social upheaval that would erode the economic gains made over many years through the sacrifice of our citizens.

Yesterday evening, news emerged that the Government and the NWC employees had reached an agreement for them to return to their jobs while work continues on the compensation restructuring project that is at the root of the workers’ anger.

We note that the parties have agreed that this restructuring exercise will be concluded and finalised within three months from May 20 and, thereafter, the results will be implemented within another three months. The timeline may be ambitious, given that this matter has been dragging for so long and current circumstances will most likely differ from when the negotiations started years ago. However, we hope that the difficulties will be ironed out and an amicable solution agreed.

It’s well established that Jamaica’s long-standing economic challenges have played a significant role, overtime, in frustrating salary expectations for public sector workers including those at the NWC. Having to resort to the multilateral lender of last resort, the International Monetary Fund, for economic support — which has been the case for successive governments since the global financial meltdown of 2008 — has made the situation more difficult.

At the same time, the Government needs to get to the point where it shows utmost respect to its employees and seeks as best as possible to avoid protracted negotiations. Equally, workers need to accept that disagreement with their employers must not result in inconvenience to the public. Respect and a caring attitude must be shown by all sides.

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