Tuesday, April 23, 2024

BARBADOS EMPLOYERS’ CONFEDERATION: The fight for better labour relations

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Karl Marx in a letter to his father in 1837: “If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people.”

THIS EPITOMISES the work of the early stalwarts in the labour movement. It was a fight for better working relationships, better working conditions and ultimately a better way of life for all.

The struggles of the early movement can be now seen in the working conditions and benefits many Barbadians enjoy today. This, however, does not indicate that the journey is over, but it indicates that with much effort and dedication much can be achieved.

The 1930s period in Caribbean history was characterised by a wave of protests, strikes and disturbances. This wave of activity signalled to Britain the need for their assistance in creating an atmosphere that was conducive to productivity on the various plantations across the Caribbean.

The British government stated that “Royal Commission’s visit to the islands would have a good psychological effect in these colonies.”

Today, the Labour Department coupled with the activities of the trade unions, provide the same effect for employees across Barbados. Out of the West Indian Commission of 1938 came the Labour Department in 1940 and the registration of the Barbados Workers’ Union in 1941.

Emanating from the continuous struggles after the 1930s were some fundamental elements of industrial relations. These include freedom of association, freedom to bargain collectively, processes of trade union recognition, and freedom to engage in peaceful picketing.

Over the years, the Labour Department continued to grow in strength with the legal backing commended to it by various pieces of legislation. Citizens grew to appreciate and value the authority of the department and its main mandate was to ensure a cohesive industrial relations system on the island. The major function of the Labour Department is to provide conciliation services and assist in the resolution of grievances and disputes when the primary and secondary parties fail to reach an agreement at a domestic level.

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Further, the Labour Department Act, Cap 23, broadened the mandate to encapsulate the enforcement of labour legislation and monitoring of occupational safety and health standards. Respect and workplace safety were two of the very important subjects emerging from the commission’s report, therefore, it was only fitting that the creation of the Labour Department would facilitate fair employment, promote mutual respect and workplace safety and health.

The department is governed by the Chief Labour Officer whose functions are to receive and investigate all representations made to him/her with a view to settling disputes and grievances by way of conciliation or mediation. Some may try to say that the Labour Department is almost like a toothless animal in that its only course of action is to defer matters to the new Employment Tribunal or the Minister of Labour.

However, the maintenance of harmony is more than providing punishments and granting requests but the ability to understand the issues and bring both parties to a mutual agreement; this is the strength of the department.

The continued enhancement of the industrial relations climate was assisted by the advent of employer representation through the establishment of the Barbados Employers’ Confederation in 1956 and most important, the creation of the Social Partnership in the 1990s.

These avenues allowed for greater equilibrium in industrial relations as the employees had a representative voice and so too, did the employers. The tripartite form of the Social Partnership allowed the Government to understand the needs of both employees and employers while giving these parties a chance to understand and assist with economic and social challenges.

What characterises labour relations in the 21st century? Despite the many differences employers and employees may experience, the right to collective bargaining and the right to manage as covered by Protocol VI allow for widespread harmony in the industrial relations system.

With the social protocols established, custom in practice, the proclamation of the Employment Rights Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the standards as set out in collective agreements, the players in the labour market grew to understand and respect the rights and responsibilities of all parties.

This harmony, however, has been underpinned by the role of the Labour Department to advise the Government with regard to the betterment of industrial relations and all labour matters; as well as to ensure the due enforcement of the acts as required.

Playing the role of an unbiased party, the department is the balancing pin in this system, ensuring that all parties obtain fairness and respect. The officers have the power of entry which enables them to inspect and examine work premises to ensure that legal provisions are being observed.

The further sub-division of the department allows for execution of tasks in an efficient manner. These are: industrial relations with responsibility for labour inspection and industrial relations; occupational safety and health and safety; the National Employment Bureau with responsibility for the provision of local and overseas employment services.

Henrietta Newton Martin once said: “Success in an enterprise can be brought about through effective leadership, which produces open communication, which in turn would contribute towards bringing down conflict levels, thus leading to higher productivity and distinguished gains, which in turn testifies about the healthy corporate culture of an organisation.”

If we were to adopt this quote as a guiding principle for the needed continuance of industrial relations harmony, the Labour Department, the various unions and the employers’ representatives will need to communicate openly and respect the authority of each party, which can encourage greater productivity, which stems from positive workplace cultures.

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