Every once in a while, in the ongoing and ever-changing landscape of industrial relations in Trinidad and Tobago there is the equivalent of what used to be called in ice cream shoppes – the flavour of the month.
Some months it arises out of a statement made (or not made) by the president of the Industrial Court, sometimes a showmanship ploy by Watson Duke who is always good for a broad grin and a nudge, nudge.
This month, it has to do with the vexed question of compulsory vaccinations as people gradually return to work, manufacturing and construction start back and street food is now legal…apparently.
I am not sure about the latter, as I drove past one today, hoping to stop and buy bananas. I did not, as there were six police officers busily forcing the greens and fruit vendor to close down. I can’t imagine why. They are smallish – only five people can ever park and buy at any one time – and the Three Wise Men on TV definitely included way-side vendors, doubles people, and so on, as free to open. Are fresh fruits and vegetable now forbidden?
Apparently only certain government-employed journalists are now being allowed to cover public events, so if Cabinet is going to decide what news we will be allowed to know about, we should not be surprised if it is also deciding what fresh food we are going to be allowed to buy from small agricultural entrepreneurs. The small people are always the ones easiest to pick on, I guess.
The current industrial relations "flavour of the day” is not only compulsory vaccination; it is also about human rights, the rights of children (Yes. They have them, too), and the yawning social gap in equality in TT. Every creed and race having an equal place is a claim generations of politicians and their followers have promised. As the politicians in Animal Farm said: “some people are more equal than others”. So we see, as we look about us at unequal street vendors trying to sell chives by the side of the road. And what about compulsory vaccinations?
The much touted Roadmap to Recovery plan according to Minister of Labour Stephan McClashie has undergone a “setback." The trade union movement’s membership has dropped from 40 per cent of the workforce to 20 per cent, one official reported. Like with everything else, the 50 per cent drop will be blamed on covid19. But if the PSA statistics are to be believed, and its membership alone is slightly above 80,000, out of a workforce of 634,000 pre lockdown. That is almost
12 per cent of all people employed if my mathematics are correct. Is it possible my confusion arises out of web page information from the National Trade Union Centre (NATUC) website that claims 80,000 as the total trade union membership in TT at the same time that Mr Duke claims 80,000 as his own PSA membership from more than 100 government organisations? Is membership in the PSA compulsory if you are employed in any aspect of the government service? But isn’t that contrary to Section 43(5) (c) of the Industrial Relations Act? Or is that one of the many aspects of legislation that is conveniently ignored?
Perhaps the information online by NATUC was misconstrued? If 80,000 is really the membership of NATUC is the only participating member PSA? But what about Bank and General Workers Trade Union? And National Workers Trade Union? And what is left of Oilfield Workers Trade Union? Are they in favour of compulsory vaccination of their members? Or is it only the views of government workers that have union dies deducted from their salaries, and owe their secure employment to obedience to whatever Cabinet decrees?
The Industrial Court has definitively pronounced on that, to the ire of some and the complacency of others. As usual when stakeholders cannot decide they say, “the minister must decide” and the minister says: “It must be a Cabinet decision" and that august body says: “only Parliament can determine this by passing a law”.
Have you any idea how long it takes, on the average, to pass a law from conception to consultation to drafting to Cabinet approval to finding space on the parliamentary schedule to debate, to the various committee stages, to debate to amendments, back to scheduling in both lower and upper houses to enactment to structural adjustments including budgeting, to allocating responsibility to appropriate ministries, to finding money to implement, to hiring and training the implementers? On average 50 years, if it is not deliberately stalled in the committee stages both in Cabinet and in Parliament.
In the meantime life must go on. Work must resume because without it people will starve, children will slow down their intellectual development and the whole Eric Williams’s determination that children of every race, class, parentage and status must have equal opportunities will look like the fantasy it already is, where 40,000 children have already lost that stage in their essential neurobiological development. Some others will make it. Some won’t. Inequality is already growing. Which segment of the population will constitute the resented one per cent in 20 years’ time?
We will have to wait and see. There is ample evidence that vaccinations have made a difference in the death toll from covid19, and to its infection spread, hence to the ability to work of those people in the public service who opt to turn up, and of those in services deemed essential. While even the companies that manufacture the serums don’t claim it will be effective beyond two years, (which is not generally publicised) and we have no right to demand more at this stage, research will continue and lives will be saved. The question of compulsory inoculation, in the meantime, will have to go through many constitutional legal battles about human rights to choose what goes into one’s body, and, significantly, if people will be able to decide which vaccine to choose in most of the world where there is no choice.