The George Brathwaite Column – Labour Struggles for Social Dialogue
“There must be a serious reassessment of the role of the union movement and of collective rights in this process if unions are to become dynamic social engineers and reclaim their legitimate space in the socioeconomic arena.” – Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine.
In last week’s By George column, an argument was made for Barbados to seriously reengage the Social Partnership through enhanced social discourse. The contention is that the Social Partnership, based on its historical record, is potentially conducive to meaningful dialogue on the social and economic matters which are currently hampering real progress and constraining national development. This article asserts that a passage of dialogic engagement ought to be of high priority for all stakeholders. The fact is, the Social Partnership has the institutional capacity to conduct active consultation along the lines of cooperation.
The call for social dialogue is not an attempt to rubbish the ruse that was concocted and pelted upon Barbadians by the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in 2013. Nor is an argument being made to throw a lifeline for a beleaguered government that has squandered the goodwill of Barbadians with every arrogant statement and callous action performed. Instead, the call for enhanced social dialogue through the Social Partnership is for all the players involved to establish a common knowledge concerning the prevailing situation and, to determine the rules of the game in attempting to get an agreement which enables the Government, the employers and workers’ representatives to strategise a realistic path in the best interest of Barbados. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2016 advised that national progress “must be made with all agencies at the table to ensure open communication to begin to effectively address” the issues perplexing and dragging Barbados’ return to prosperity.
In the 1990s, efforts of the Social Partnership, although never perfect, fostered mutual understanding, good professional relations, and found agreed solutions to the socio-economic problems of the day. At that time, the cuts to public expenditure, the sending home of thousands of workers from both the public and private sectors, and the 8 % salary cut for public service workers were tortuously products of globalisation and neoliberalism. Today, a more antagonistic socio-economic sphere is caustically featuring in Barbados. Again, the Barbados currency is perilously close to devaluation while spending power has been severely constrained by austere measures and increased taxation. Barbados is gripped in prolonged situations of paltry economic performance under the DLP administration.
Neoliberalism ultimately changed the discourse on development in Barbados, and continues to challenge the society’s well-being. The DLP Cabinet has been unable to find creative ways to cope and manage the country’s affairs due to its poor record of dialogue with the stakeholders. There is the prevailing sense that with cooperation lacking, key players and stakeholders must once more become innovative and invoke the utility of the Social Partnership. The stakeholders must find means to climb out of the social and economic morass to reach acceptable levels of quality modalities for national development.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, the DLP struggles at every turn and in every sphere of governance. Several DLP members blatantly try to crush justifiable resistance from labour and other sections of the local society. The fact is, Stuart’s DLP has disappointed much more than it has inspired, while Barbados limps on as if the drought for critical thought is deepening and effective communication among the stakeholders is unreachable. The DLP’s quest for paramountcy of the political party has by-passed the capacity to connect with the nation’s private sector employers or with the gamut of workers across all sectors.
Indeed, for the wrong reasons, trade union leadership is being interrogated, judged, and convicted erroneously. Trade unions and their leadership are being branded in anti-statist terms because they are willing to speak out, and they are sufficiently aware of Government’s goal to malign and divide. The last elections of the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) became a signal eye-opener. Just this past weekend, the unions were being asked to exercise caution in response to the island’s main public servant who remains literally unresponsive to the country’s needs. Stuart showed a snobbish reluctance even to accept a hand-delivered correspondence from the unions.
Clearly, the trade unions are being impacted by finger-pointing and blame; also, they are being accused of sleeping in the same bed as the DLP’s political opponents. The fact is, labour is already condemned for seeking audience with the Prime Minister, despite their previous attempts at dialogue. Other groups within the private sector associations have rightfully claimed that the Government’s approach reveals a disinclination for forthright social dialogue. Yet, what has emerged in plain sight is the superimposition of tantrums from a failed Cabinet, and a slap down from a former prime minister on trade union leadership. Labour has become the targeted culprit in the scheme of a soured tripartite relationship that is chaired by an unapologetic and phlegmatic communicator called Prime Minister Stuart.
Workers and their representatives are reduced to a meddlesome confusion by those who should know better saying that if not checked, trade unions will exacerbate a troublesome path for Barbados. Labour continues to be pummelled by the Government with claims that workers are contributing less than the desired levels of productivity. Deceptively, some Cabinet Ministers are quick to insinuate that Barbadian workers have become lazy, take inordinate amounts of sick leave, and constantly make unreasonable demands for higher wages without corresponding inputs.
The myriad inefficiencies of Government are almost always latched onto the human resource element despite the sheer errors being made by the DLP Cabinet. With the unsustainable practice of printing money by the Central Bank attracting criticisms of the Government’s ineptitude for investment and economic growth strategies, still the emphasis is on the burgeoning size of the public sector and how best to axe persons from the workforce. In the entire mix of these major problems and issues, the negative forces appear to belittle the importance of labour. Unfortunately, a former Prime Minister Owen Arthur, failed to seize the moment and to rise above the noise shutting down social dialogue. Rather than be the purveyor of social accord, Arthur twisted the cork to let the genie out of the bottle; within two days, he rekindled disquiet and discord which inadvertently one assumes, to be the best answers to solving a national problem. Sadly, less was said about the repeated failures of the DLP to grow and diversify the national economy which would surely help to rise above the onerous taxation and deep austerity that awaits the country once the National Social Responsibility Levy begins to bite.
The neglect or inability of the DLP for macroeconomic management of Barbados is weighing heavily against trade unions’ responses. The nation’s workers are bothered; trade union power and employer/employee relations face huge and mounting challenges. Support for the most obvious infractions to labour, must avoid the contours of political party affiliation and not be intimidated by present or past political leaders. Moreover, the tools of protest and strike action cannot be side-lined but must be kept as potent weapons kept in the unions’ quiver to deliver timely blows whenever social dialogue escapes the wielders of state power. Indeed, it is preferable and necessary that social dialogue among the stakeholders begins in earnest to resolve the issues. On principle, labour stands on solid grounds.
(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a political consultant. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)