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STALEMATE among labour, Govt, business leaders

COREY CONNELLY Sunday, August 13 2017

Is tripartism a myth? Can government, labour and business truly collaborate in the interest of all parties? These questions have assumed greater prominence in the aftermath of the Joint Trade Union Movement’s mass rally in Port-of- Spain, on August 4, at which union leaders and their membership criticised the Government’s handling of the issues affecting the labour sector.

Within the past year, the sector has been underpinned by retrenchment, stalled negotiations and increasing hopelessness among workers.

On Friday, president of the Banking, Insurance and General Workers Trade Union Vincent Cabrera, at a news conference, again complained about the continued retrenchment of workers, not the least of which is the reported dismissal of some 49 workers at Guardian Media Ltd.

Cabrera claimed last week that an estimated 4,000 people have been put on the breadline over the last year. Responding to the rally, last Saturday, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley did not address calls by the trade union for an urgent meeting with him but rather, extended an olive branch to the leaders, urging them to return to the National Tripartite Advisory Council (NTAC), which was formed in March 2016 as a mechanism to address the socio-economic challenges confronting the country.

“The Government, with a wider responsibility for the entire population, would hope that the workers representatives would acknowledge the reality and outcomes of our strained circumstances and return to the tripartite approach enabled by the Government, rather than rely on threats, bombast, finger pointing and insults, since these invectives would do little to assist us in treating with the harsh realities of our current circumstances as a nation in the midst of an economic downturn which is driven largely by our location in external markets beyond our control,” Rowley had said in a statement from the Office of the Prime Minister.

But today, one week after the rally, labour leaders told Sunday Newsday they have no intention of returning to the NTAC until the Government truly re-commits to the process for which the council was originally conceptualised.

“It has to be meaningful, with substance and based on mutual respect,” said Michael Annisette, president of the National Trade Union Centre (NATUC).

Annisette said he took no solace in the prime minister’s statement after the rally.

“Extending an olive branch and then saying ‘go back’ rather than sitting down and seriously addressing the genuine concerns that we have articulated would not solve the problem.” The labour leaders suspended their involvement in the NTAC in March, over the Government’s decision to dismantle the Tourism Development Corporation (TDC) and replace it with two regulatory bodies. They contend that the plan to abolish the TDC was made without any consultation with the labour movement and flew in the face of the spirit of the NTAC.

Describing the move as the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” Annisette argued that it was disingenuous of the Government to establish the NTAC and continue to act in a high-handed manner.

“When the Minister of Tourism (Shamfa Cudjoe) made the announcement that Cabinet has taken a decision to dismantle the Tourism Development Corporation, we realised that all of these workers would be affected because there was not any discussion whatsoever,” he said.

“What is the purpose of having a National Tripartite Advisory Committee and then Cabinet is still free to make whatever decisions they want that affect the livelihood of people and impinge on the workers that we represent?” Anisette, who is also president General of the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union, said the labour sector suspended its involvement in the NTAC on the basis of principle.

The veteran labour leader said, though, there were other issues which factored into the decision.

“We left the process because of some of the actions over a period of time that the Government would have taken without consultation and/or discussions with the trade union movement and that is the reason why we would have left,” he said of their decision to temporarily quit the NTAC.

Given the Government’s failure to treat meaningfully with the issues plaguing the sector, Annisette argued that tripartism and social dialogue should be legislated “so that any government that comes into power they will have a mandate through legislation to say that there must be social dialogue.” President of the Transport and Industrial Workers Union (TIWU) Roland Sutherland said the trade union movement has been disrespected for as long as he could remember.

He said the union leaders’ decision to withhold their support for the NTAC reflected this view.

“The relationship in terms of some of the activities that has been taking place where labour is concerned, shows that we continue to be disrespected,” Sutherland said.

“In my own case with MTS workers (TIWU), negotiations are over. However, the Government is not signing off on the negotiations for the workers to get money.

That has been going on almost for two years now.

“So, labour needs to be shown the respect it deserves before we get back behind the table in NTAC. What is the sense you in NTAC and whilst the discussions taking place, the labour movement is being disrespected and taking a pounding.

That don’t make sense.” To end the apparent stalemate, Sutherland said good sense must prevail.

“The Government needs to respect the labour movement so that we could feel our contribution is being respected whenever we sit down and talk.” Ozzie Warwick, chief education and research officer of the Oilfields Workers Trade Union, told Sunday Newsday the labour movement had observed, long before the People’s National Movement assumed office, that TT would have faced economic difficulties.

In light of that, he said they agreed that the only way to weather the storm would have been to seek national consensus on sharing the burden of adjustment.

Warwick said by the time the NTAC was up and running, union leaders had formulated what he called Labour’s Economic Alternative Plan, which they presented to the council for its consideration.

He claimed there was no feedback.

“It was meant to be a proposal and an alternative to austerity because when we looked across the globe in terms of how various countries were dealing with their crises, some countries took austerity which led to stagnation and social chaos while other countries, including the United States, took another path, investing in stimulating the economy so that the economy would grow.” Warwick claimed several countries, utilising the latter model, emerged from their crises.

He said while NTAC meetings were being held, mass retrenchment was taking place in the country.

“That just cannot work. So we would have left,” Warwick said of labour’s decision to leave the NTAC.

Nevertheless, he remains hopeful that tripartism can work, “if all three parties are genuine, show respect for one-another and at least have a common goal.” He added: “Once those elements are there, tripartism can work. But you have a situation where government and business are engaging in actions that are completely counter to the interests of one (labour).

“So, it is almost as though the two gang up on the one. You can’t stay there and take all that blows.

Anybody thinking objectively would agree that that cannot be fair.” ILO director says consensus possible Claudia Coenjaerts, new Director of the International Labour Organisation Organisation (ILO) Decent Work Team and Office for the Caribbean, said consensus within the framework of tripartism was not elusive.

“In tripartism, you can actually find that sweet spot where you can get consensus,” she said in a television interview on Thursday.

“But it takes a lot of emotional intelligence to get us there and I think it is also about becoming more aware that we (three parties) have the same interests in mind.

“We all want sustainability - workers, employers and Government.

We all want prosperity. We all want to come out of the crisis. It’s probably just the way we think we will get there is a little bit different.” However, Coenjaerts said the tripartite process was hard work.

“We face it day to day in the ILO. It’s kind of the breath of our life,” she said. “But really it takes consistent, serious and sustained work.” Saying tripartism, by its very nature, was a “tumultuous affair,” Coenjaerts said: “It is meant to be quite passionate, quite fiery and so you need to do a lot of investment, a lot of cultivation so that when the going gets tough, as we see now, you can actually bear the fruits of having built that relationship.” Coenjaerts, a Belgian, said several islands in the region have committed to tripartism, namely Barbados, Jamaica and Grenada.

Regarding Jamaica, she said: “They actually developed a good practice over the years. They have gone through very hard economic times with the IMF agreement but it has brought them to the table and they have really developed a practice of working together on matters.” Coenjaerts said governments should not attempt to implement “parallel systems” without the sanction of all of the players in a tripartite body.

“That is where we still need to work on getting it right - that the mechanism we set in place is truly given that role. I do believe the social partners will actually come back to the table.”

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