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The changing face of labour in T&T

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Fabian Pierre.



The Communications Workers Union (CWU) says employers are on a drive—supported by established business organisations—to reduce workers’ benefits which trade unions have fought for over many years. Following a break down in talks with TSTT last December over their 2008­–2012 collective agreement, CWU president Joseph Remy claimed there was an ongoing national effort to destroy COLA by indexation.  


“This isn’t about TSTT (only), this is about the employer class waging a class war against the working class. It is a national effort funded and supported by the ECA, the TTMA and the chambers against COLA by indexation.” Remy said.


The Employer’s Consultative Association (ECA) and TSTT have both denied Remy’s claim. In a statement to the Sunday Guardian, TSTT said it is not against COLA by indexation and has included it in all wage negotiations. The ECA said it is neither engaged in funding nor supporting a national effort against COLA by indexation, adding that the Public Services Association (PSA) was the first to accept fixed-rate COLA.


“And this is a dangerous thing,” said John Julien of the CWU. COLA by indexation, he explained, takes into consideration inflation and is worked out using the retail prices index, working in favour of employees. The CWU deputy president said fixed-rate COLA works in favour of employers, as the rate stays constant no matter how high inflation figures rise. “With fixed-rate COLA, workers don’t have any kind of buffer against a rising cost of living,” Julien said.


The ECA said prior to 1987, most collective agreements provided for COLA by indexation. This changed when official statistics on the retail prices index were not readily available from the Central Statistical Office. The National Workers said since COLA came into being during World War II, employees of 16 companies have lost the allowance. 


Within Remy’s accusation lie deeper questions: Is this true? Are the managers of capital, and the employer class, waging a war against the working class? If so, when did this shift in its intensity begin? 




Long-time adversaries
“Well, this is nothing new you know,” says Reginald Dumas, former T&T ambassador to Washington. “For as long as anyone can remember, labour has always had its struggles.” Dumas told the Sunday Guardian that when Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler led the labour strike of 1937 for oilfield workers’ rights, he had support from the agricultural sector, sugar workers and others, including Tobago. That was important, he explained, because of the future it came to determine. 


“So that a generalised anti-employer solidarity, which in large part was also a racial and colony-regional solidarity, helped in the formation of the OWTU shortly thereafter., Dumas said. 



What went wrong
The CWU’s Julien, MSJ political leader David Abdulah, and Dumas all agree, that the 1980s was the decade that set the stage for the major shift in employer attitudes, the economy and the idea of nationalism in T&T. More specifically, Abdulah said, it was the intervention of the IMF, the IDB and the World Bank in the late 1980s and early 1990s that sparked the change. 



He said the dominant thinking of privatisation, retrenchment, use of contract labour, deregularisation of the economy and adjustment to government policies led to a cut in the spending power of citizens. These changes, Julien said, also changed employees. “I mean, I don’t want to know, but it has become like a greedy an extent. We are saying that we are giving a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay and we are expecting a fair day’s pay.” 


Julien said employees no longer work for the love of the job, but rather to make ends meet. He said workers have become increasingly cynical, not only in private organisations but especially in the public sector. “So what do you expect when you have an employer which is the Government, who is free spending, and therefore you looking to say, ‘Where am I going to get something?’ I’m not seeing anything, but yet still you’re telling me work 120 per cent to get 60 per cent wages.”


The future of labour
The CWU sees a grim future for labour in T&T. However, Dumas believes hostilities can be calmed if parties come together in the interest of the country’s development. “We need to look at a social compact, much like Barbados has. In Barbados, there is a social compact among business, labour and government and it has worked very well for them, though, surprisingly, it seems not to have been invoked recently by the Barbados government before it announced deep cuts in the public service mandated by the IMF. 


“We in Trinidad and Tobago have tried a kind of social compact that we called tripartism—government, business and labour sitting and discussing together. But one prominent labour leader, one who was deeply involved in such discussions, told me many years ago that tripartism didn’t work because each party came to the table with its own agenda and pursued that agenda regardless of the country’s best interests. 


“There was no compromising: my way or the highway. No one said, ‘Listen, this is the state of the economy...we may not be able to afford 20 per cent increases but here’s what we can do.’ “Now people need to act quickly and differently, especially in the light of production and exports of oil and natural gas increasing and competing with ours, thus possibly leading to declines in our national income.” 


At the People’s Summit organised in 2009 to coincide with the Summit of the Americas, Abdulah called for a social compact to allow all parties not only a sense of calm but one of benefit and growth for all, a position he still maintains. Up to press time, neither the TTMA nor the T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce had responded to requests for comment on the CWU’s statement.


TSTT said it does not see any adversarial relationship between the company and its employees, adding that while telecommunications is not a labour intensive industry but a highly technical one, it sees training and development of its staff as integral to the company’s development. The matter between TSTT and the CWU is scheduled to be heard at the Industrial Court in a continuing saga that labour leaders claim is another example of profit at the expense of labour. 


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