When words lead to action that affects employers, workers

Protesters attend a candlelight vigil outside the Red House, on February 8, to remember Andrea Bharatt, who was kidnapped and killed, and victims of violent crime in a call for changes to laws to make people safer. PHOTO BY AYANNA KINSALE -
Protesters attend a candlelight vigil outside the Red House, on February 8, to remember Andrea Bharatt, who was kidnapped and killed, and victims of violent crime in a call for changes to laws to make people safer. PHOTO BY AYANNA KINSALE -

Do you remember Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady singing, “Words, words, words! I’m so sick of words!”?

In the Newsday this week there were two articles – one by Paolo Kernahan and the other by Marina Salandy-Brown – that brought that song back from a long ago film, echoing in my brain and I couldn’t get it to stop. It might have been written and sung today:

“Words, Words, Words

I'm so sick of words

I get words all day through

First from him, now from you

Is that all you blighters can do?”

As I went through some of the Industrial Court judgements dealing with dismissals delivered over recent years, I could not help but be struck by how many of the cases that went to court arose out of words. Words that employees or managers considered disrespectful and aggressive. Some were written, and in some cases spoken.

I remember many years ago dealing with an explosion of anger by workers on one of our major ports. The language used by stevedores and longshoremen is not often language I can repeat for publication without it being edited out, or having me arrested for the use of curse words or indecency in public (as has happened to actors in TT on stage, as some of you may recall, shutting down an entire production for the use of obscenity).

On the port, however, it is known as “colourful shop-floor language” that workers are accustomed to use for emphasis in normal conversation with each other.

But at that time they did not use it in addressing their managers. The conflagration occurred because one of the managers, angry at the poor performance of a gang of workers for messing up something they were expected to be able to do, cursed the entire gang, using curse words referring to their sex lives with their wives.

There are some things that go beyond just obscenity when applied to men’s wives and go into the category of obscene and abusive, and beyond obscenity to disrespect. As happens in other “hot spots,” to “diss” someone amounts to provocation that can lead to violence.

The difference arises in when and how words are used. Words from people in authority carry a weight that words from co-workers don’t. Used carelessly or without caution, they can lead to all sorts of results, and expensive ones, from constructive dismissal to work stoppages to admonitory judgements with hefty payments imposed by the court.

Language that overseers on Trinidad’s plantations could get away with in the 1930s, or managers on the port at that time, are no longer even marginally acceptable. Management brings privileges; it also brings responsibilities. There is a chain of consequences that arises from even the most basic action, or failure to act.

There is a chain in dealing with the punishment of crime, for example. When the police testing labs have their budgets cut by political decision-makers, reagents are not purchased (no foreign exchange available) so DNA testing is delayed. In the decades-old cases of the murders of Sean Luke and Akiel Chambers, although the accused are known to police – police cannot get evidence that is regarded by the DPP (or the magistracy? Or who?) as sufficient.

Knowing this, out of frustration, police prosecutors stop going to court, as they have nothing to go with. So frustrated magistrates cancel the cases after ten or so non-appearances, and so the murderers are not convicted. They go free to commit other crimes.

And the public, outraged, and justifiably so, blames the commissioner of police for a judicial system that apparently he is powerless to change, but which fails us all.

Then words are used as politicians promise the judicial system will improve and in the future people with 70 charges against them will not be let off to indulge in more rape and sexual molestation – the crime that has the highest recidivism rate in the world.

“Words, words, words, I am so sick of words” – words in the news media that cause frustrated people to march, shouting complaints they suspect will be ignored by political leaders, the only ones with the ability to make legislative changes. These marches are manifestations of social unrest.

The changes to the judicial system that allow it to happen never take place because the political elite don’t agree to work together to save the populace. It seems that they either do not know how, or those who do refuse to work together to implement the changes, lest they lose support in the next elections.

Political scientists have often pointed out the formula in their analyses. It starts with social unrest, then, as people’s anger is fired up, it leaks into industrial unrest as most working people feel the social injustices that affect them and their families.

I am sure you have noticed how often the current activists speak of women’s vulnerabilities when going to and from work? Or at work? Women are not only half of the workforce; they are half of the population.

So social unrest goes on to industrial unrest; then, if nothing is done to alleviate it, it goes on to political unrest, which, if not dealt with, can lead to an attempted coup.

It is happening all over the world. It happened here in 1970 when TT suffered its first attempted coup – a military one which has been excised from the history books in the schools' curricula, I suppose to protect the reputation of Dr Williams, under whose rule it happened.

It happened again in 1990. Too many people now alive remember that one to blank it from memory.

Very few current politicians have been students of political science, and perhaps are not seeing the writing on the wall. So as usual, it will be employers and workers who will feel the brunt of what is to come, as they did with the “scientific” advice on covid19.

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