We welcome the return of the trade union movement to the tripartite process, providing a voice on behalf of workers who will likely feel the brunt of economic reforms to be unveiled in coming weeks.
If labour is to have a real chance of effectively representing workers, it must remain around the table so that its voice becomes a key part of government deliberations in the long run. However, that participation should be based on the shared goal of driving the nation forward.
Therefore, while the return of the trade unions is welcomed, that return should not have been made conditional upon any sort of assurances by the Dr Keith Rowley administration. The guarantee that no jobs will be cut before December 31, 2017, as symbolic as it is given that narrow timeline for the presentation of the next Budget, will be interpreted by some as a kind of blackmail being wrought by the unions.
No, participation in the tripartite process should be voluntary and not conditional. However one interprets the revival of talks, it is clear that the tripartite process is going to be extremely crucial in the weeks ahead.
All indicators – from Government ministers, economists and pundits – suggest a Budget with far-reaching implications is about to be unveiled. Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis’s minced no words this week, saying, “We are in perilous times.”
Former minister in the Ministry of Finance Mariano Browne said, “This Budget is one where we have to face our Maker.” UWI economist Dr Valmiki Argon warned that Value Added Tax may be increased from 12.5 per cent to 15 per cent. President of the Joint Trade Union Movement Ansel Roget said the Government has been planning a lot of retrenchment, a matter the Government has vehemently denied. Time will tell what measures are unveiled but it is expected there will be a continuation of policies that have been designed to reduce State expenditure. One such policy is the gradual phasing out of the fuel subsidy that successive administrations have been chipping away at, mindful of the dangers of systemic jolts adversely affecting the standard of living of the most vulnerable citizens.
On the question of jobs there is some merit in arguing that maintaining employment should be a vital priority. Increased unemployment reduces consumer spending, places inexorable social pressures on communities and fuels the underground economy. It also aggravates crime levels.
Equally, as has been pointed out by some, the quality of employment is another consideration. If we safeguard jobs we must ask ourselves why. What kind of jobs are we safeguarding? What role do these workers play within the overall economy? And what is the impact of job losses in this sector? Further, what are the working conditions? Do workers get fair pay? Is there gender parity? Do they enjoy true security of tenure? Or are they in “make-work” State schemes?
All of these are matters which the trade union movement will be in a position to have a voice on now that it has returned to the table. But the renewed effort of a tripartite process will only work if lessons from the past are learned.
The first challenge is to ensure the committee holds talks at frequent enough intervals. The second challenge is to ensure the truly substantial matters affecting workers come before the committee. Otherwise, it is a mere cloak for Executive action.
If those matters can be refined, then moving forward there can be progress. And now, more than ever, progress is needed.