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Labour Day was marked on Tuesday with the usual marching and rallying, topped off by fiery rhetoric from trade union leaders, directed as usual against capitalism and the government of the day.
For all workers in T&T, the occasion is of great social and historic significance, marking the date of the Butler Oilfield Riots 81 years ago in 1937.
Preceding that date, concerns about worker abuse, low wages, racism and low living standards had triggered a series of strikes and riots on sugar plantations and oil fields across the country. Unrest had been taking place since 1934 and it was during those days of worker resistance that the labour movement’s most iconic figure emerged—Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler.
While there have been other prominent trade union leaders arising out of those years of social unrest and in the decades since then, including Captain Andrew Arthur Cipriani, George Weekes, Albert Maria Gomes, Adrian Cola Rienzi, Elma Francois and CLR James, Butler’s position as the father of T&T’s labour movement is beyond dispute.
The year 1937 is also significant to workers for another reason—the birth of the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU)—the first registered trade union in this country and still among the largest and most influential.
Currently led by Ancel Roget, the union was well represented at Tuesday’s celebrations and Roget was most prominent among the speakers at the rally at Charlie King Junction, Fyzabad, which marked the climax of the day’s activities.
Unfortunate, though, that there were two sets of celebrations.
While unions affiliated to the Federation of Independent Trade Unions (Fitun) stayed in the birthplace of the local labour movement in Fyzabad, unions aligned with the National Trade Union Centre (Natuc) were in Scarborough, Tobago for a separate march and rally.
While they deny it, these separate observances only add to the perception of a rift among the unions.
Indeed, through the decades, there have been very few years when the entire movement has managed to present a united front on June 19. However, both groups were very strident on Tuesday in celebrating their accomplishments on behalf of workers, as well as sounding the usual warnings about impending resistance and protests. Both also hailed the achievements of their predecessors of the 1930s.
But as much as it is important to look back and celebrate the achievements of all those who led the workers’ movement in those turbulent years, it is now a new century. It is time for more forward thinking, as well as a shift in the dialogue from the local labour movement.
The staging grounds for the riots of 1937 have either disappeared or changed significantly. The canefields are gone along with the sugar industry, while the energy industry has changed significantly, even if it remains the primary engine of economic activity for the country.
The composition of the workforce has also been altered, with some jobs no longer in existence, workers replaced by machines for some tasks and new work titles and different types of workers, with skills that could not be envisaged eight decades ago now coming to the fore.
T&T has been caught in the tide of global change, as well as the technological advances that have transformed the workplace. It is inevitable that trade unions adapt to the changes, largely due to globalisation, that are affecting employee relation and the management of human resource.
This country has not been immune to changes in industries that have led, unfortunately, to changes in employment conditions that have generally not been favourable for workers.
One of the most glaring is the increased number of contract workers, as many companies in their efforts to stay competitive through increased and achieve more flexibility in their production processes, reduce their numbers of full-time employees, replacing them with part time and contracted personnel.
Across many industries contractors are now being hired, bringing along their own manpower, to carry out tasks, including operating entire departments. This generally means workers without job security, benefits or union representation.
Unions have been affected by this relentless pressure to reduce costs and enhance productivity and have been seeing reductions in their membership, as well as less influence in some of the newly created areas of production,
Employers will say that they have no choice but to adjust to maintain their competitiveness in the global economy.
The other challenge for unions in 21st century T&T that their predecessors of the 1930s could not envision was the emergence of government “make work,” unskilled labour programmes—the Community Based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme (CEPEP)—introduced in 2002, and the Unemployment Relief Programme (URP), which has been around since 1992. These programmes now account for a large chunk of the country’s unskilled labour force. These workers are signed on to individual contracts and have no union representation.
CEPEP, which is now falls under the Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government, provides temporary jobs for less than eight hours a day at rates of pay above the minimum wage.
Through the URP, employment is available in cycles of three consecutive two-weeks, with the option to re-register for further employment after a three-month break.
CEPEP and the URP, as key aspects of state-run social programmes, have been the tools used to drive the unemployment rate to a historical low levels in recent decades but has not managed to mask the problem of low productivity that hinder economic growth.
The reality is that the absence of real growth and workers’ productivity has hindered diversification and job creation, particularly in the non-energy sector.
Therein lies the challenge for T&T’s labour movement if it is to remain relevant. They, too, must diversify, in their strategies, in their approaches to dialogue and in their quest to protect workers’ rights.
At last count, there were 123 registered trade unions, with the largest having member of approximately 20,000. However, as I mentioned before, there has been a marked decline in the number of workers in this country that are represented by a union and this should be a big concern for the labour union and a problem they should be actively trying to resolve.
Take, for example, that issue of contract employment which has been the focus of plenty talk but little action. The labour movement has the opportunity to take the lead in dialogue and serious examination of this issue as it affects T&T.
They can also take the issue forward, joining forces with their regional and international affiliates, since this particular trend in employment is not limited to this country.
A 2015 International Labour Organisation (ILO) World Employment and Social Outlook Report showed there is a global shift to more insecure jobs and more non-standard forms of employment which has been driving growing inequality and higher rates of poverty.
Only a quarter of the world’s workers—one in four workers—are permanently employed, with the remainder on temporary or short-term contracts, working informally often without any contract, self-employed or in unpaid family jobs.
According to the ILO, this shift away from full-time employment is driven by changing employer needs, rather than by changing worker preferences.
This means more job insecurity, with fewer opportunities for mobility and increased instability.
In this atmosphere of instability, it is time for T&T’s unions to evolve and effectively confront these new workplace challenges.
Expressions of solidarity and defiance have always been part of the strategy of local unions and there has been plenty of that this week. What they need to do is tailor their messages and actions to the new realities of globalisation, the need to be more competitive and flexible in the interest of workers.
Are our unions up to the challenge?
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