Workers and trade unions will rise to the challenges which confront them and overcome the hurdles which stand in their way
The proliferation of food stalls in both towns and villages and households selling vegetable items from their kitchen gardens or court cases for debts are clear indication that a large section of the population is facing very tough times. Workers too are confronted with a set of difficulties – job security has declined, intensification of labour time, longer unemployment spells, night shift and low wages. Weak employment opportunities mean that workers have a lost their bargaining power while management, finding it difficult to innovate or become competitive, resorts to the short-term solution of laying off workers.
These kinds of difficulties which have weighed down on the labour force throughout our history prompt the irrelevant question whether, in the first place, our island should have been colonized and settled permanently by human beings, given the lack of natural resources which has put a severe and an unbearable strain on most of its inhabitants even since the early years of settlement. Remember that even today we do not produce all that is needed to even prepare a breakfast for one day for the whole population from our own food resources. We cannot even produce one banana a day for all our population.
However, one may credit many of our inhabitants for their success in transforming this island into a colony and, at present, into a modern nation, but this, it must also be emphasized, has been achieved by untold suffering and misery. Slavery, indentured labour and today the ‘modern worker’ – whether local or from abroad – are the ones who have borne and continue to bear the burden of development for the benefit of the few.
There is no need to elaborate on this suffering humanity who bore the brunt of exploitation over all these years, but it is worth reflecting that the ‘modern worker’, as part of a captive labour force in the island, continues to suffer at present just as his ancestors did in the past, and inevitably his children will most likely face the same difficulties in the future.
We do not rule out that many and in fact a minority has been able to eke out a reasonable standard of living now and will possibly do so in the future as well though nothing is certain in this age of uncertainties. But for the great numbers, who face the stark reality of poverty every day, it would not be considered too harsh if they were to describe the island as an ‘overcrowded barracoon’, which our pride as a nation refused to accept when the phrase was hurled in our face several decades ago.
Today we no longer talk about a rising middle class as even this small group has started slipping down the ladder while the lower classes are fast being reduced to an underclass.
Even when we look back to the last few years of the 1930s when trade unions or more precisely industrial associations were set up, workers were never able to recover their autonomy or social justice. Their struggle for decent living and working conditions had remained a relentless pursuit. Modest achievements in one generation represented a shaky foundation for the ensuing generations to build on. The welfare state was brought about merely to ensure the survival and the reproduction of this labour force and, to a certain extent, to tame down predatory capitalism.
Nowadays, the lot of the worker has worsened. Recurrent unemployment, contract labour, part-time jobs, casual labour and seasonal employment have become the dominant features of the labour market. The post-colonial state has proved unable to protect the workers enough since it has embraced globalisation – which dictates its own rules — as the only model for development. It is no longer able to salvage and uphold the values of the Left to achieve a reasonable balance between the needs of capital and other social forces. Privatisation, flexible labour and rentier capitalism are being pushed to the extreme, putting at further risk our food security, our environment and stable conditions of employment of the labour force.
An examination of labour disputes registered then with the Ministry of Labour or at some of the court cases being heard before the Industrial Court, throws up a distressing picture of the conditions in which workers had to struggle on a daily basis to get a decent wage or decent working conditions. With the State being reduced to a slave of global capitalism, the workers had lost most of their defences, which they used to wield at one time to shield themselves from employers who could shout that ‘We are not only the State, but we also are the Employers. We decide!’.
Trade unions have been placed under a number of legal constraints and have found it increasingly difficult to resort to collective action unless they are about general issues. As in the past, workers often find it necessary to take individual legal action against employers but are not always successful because workers are very often ill-informed about their duties and their rights.
Legal action is costly and prohibitive for many unless supported by their trade unions. On the other hand, employers have an arsenal of legislations readily available to use against workers and the odds to get justice are stacked against them. Not surprisingly workers find it necessary for a number of reasons, including strategic ones, to avoid direct confrontation with employers, and trade unions, too, prefer to avoid collective action.
In such a situation where workers are not satisfied with working conditions and wages and feel compelled to comply nevertheless, morale is inevitably low and forms of protest, when they are not overt, will take covert forms which will cut down on productivity, produce wastage and poor workmanship and all this adds up unnecessarily to the cost of the organisation. This is not the kind of organisation where one expects to see enhanced productivity, innovation and creativity. And, paradoxically enough, it is organisations in which management lacks innovation and creativity and finds it difficult to compete in a competitive world, that are the first to fire workers ostensibly to cut labour costs but in fact to mask their own incompetence.
Since workers cannot always choose their employers and most often have to sell their labour to eke out a living, it is imperative that workers become familiar with conditions of work. This is a tall order for many and they need the support of trade unions. Whatever be the weaknesses of trade unions and the trade union movement generally, these remain the first and best instruments to protect and defend workers.
On the other hand, trade unions have also a great responsibility to educate workers about their rights and to foster and enhance solidarity among workers and among trade unions. They should take a more proactive role in reflecting with workers over topical issues and about other aspects of workers’ work and living conditions. Employers, especially the primitive ones, will continue to resent trade unions and will erroneously think that dealing with workers directly in the absence of trade unions may be beneficial for their organisations but this is a very shortsighted and stone-age view which forward-looking and enlightened management do not share.
On Labour Day and in the present situation where generally weak economic growth is going to be felt most acutely by workers and their families, some serious thought should be given about how best to best face the present and the future. In spite of the gloomy picture we have painted, we should remain optimist and have the faith that workers and trade unions will rise to the challenges which confront them and overcome the hurdles which stand in their way.
* Published in print edition on 29 April 2016