HEAD of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions (JCTU) Helene Davis-Whyte says the present lull following the labour turbulence which gripped the country two weeks ago should be seen as an opportunity for a “reset” on the industrial relations front.
Davis-Whyte made the suggestion in a message delivered by JCTU Vice-President Oneil Grant at the National Workers’ Week and Labour Day thanksgiving service on Sunday in Kingston.
According to Davis-Whyte, an examination of the issues surrounding actions taken by public sector workers revealed that they had basically run out of patience.
She said this, coupled with poor communication or the lack thereof, resulted in workers getting the impression that their cries were not being listened to and that they were not included in the matters that will shape their collective futures.
The week of crisis began May 10 with National Water Commission workers holding the country to ransom for nearly two days by cutting water supplies. At the heart of that protest was dissatisfaction with the ongoing review of public sector compensation.
But just as those workers returned to their posts on May 11, air traffic controllers walked off the job on May 12 to register their frustration over what they said was a faulty radar system. That action closed the island’s airspace, affecting at least 10,000 travellers and costing the country millions of dollars in lost revenue.
However, as the air traffic controllers returned to work late that night, the Jamaica Civil Service Association (JCSA) indicated its intention to call a strike if the Government failed to address the organisation’s concerns about claims it wanted settled in advance of the compensation review.
By the afternoon of May 13, though, the JCSA withdrew the strike notice after a meeting with Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke.
However, while that meeting was in progress, National Housing Trust workers abandoned their posts over a protracted job evaluation exercise.
“The takeaway from that week of crisis was the need for the deepening of the contract to have deeper dialogue with workers when there is going to be change,” Davis-Whyte said in her message. “Change, by its very nature, is disruptive and what the Government has set out to do is a monumental change that has the potential to be extremely rewarding and, at the same time, extremely disruptive — hence the need to properly understand what the workers were asking of their employers.”
The JCTU president said “the events... were not borne out of the intent of the workers to derail the economic programme, they were borne out of not listening to the workers and their pain”.
She said while the industrial action was not logical from a macroeconomic perspective, it was logical from the perspective of the workers.
“It made perfect sense to them because the workers need to be included, reasoned with, and asked about their future. We must use the happenings in this Workers’ Week, not to point fingers, lay blame and admonish but as an opportunity to do, as the theme says, reignite the country. It presents us with an opportunity to have a reset; it is the silver lining in the dark clouds that hovered over our country for over a week. We must truly demonstrate that we have learned from 1938. We must use the opportunity to reignite the passion of all stakeholders through real consultation with those among us who are the most vulnerable,” Davis-Whyte stated.
Labour leaders and historians often reference 1938, when workers across the island went on strike demanding better wages. The industrial action descended into riots, the most prominent of which was that at Frome Sugar Factory in May.
Labour leader, black nationalist and Garveyite St William Grant emerged as one of the prominent figures from that unrest which also led to the birth of trade unions.
In her message on Sunday, Davis-Whyte said, “Every worker wants more, every worker wants better, more pay, better working conditions — but most importantly they want more and better dialogue about pay and working conditions.
“They want the employer to focus on the sustainable development goals, particularly sustainable development goal 8 which deals with employment, the economy and decent work. They want a deeper focus on the decent work agenda, they want a modern and reformed labour market, and they want to eliminate the worst forms of contract employment,” she said.