HEAD of the Hugh Shearer Labour Studies Institute at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Danny Roberts says the country must be careful of workers feeling unfairly treated or marginalised during the COVID-19 crisis as the nation will have to rely on their goodwill and productivity efforts for economic recovery.
“Part of what influences worker productivity efforts is whether they feel that they are respected, protected, and of value; and if they come to the conclusion that during this crisis they weren’t treated fairly, then you’re not likely to get the kind of value-added response that is required in order to move the country forward,” he asserted in an interview with the Jamaica Observer.
Roberts emphasised that it was time for low-skilled workers, such as some in the food service industries, who are now proving to be critical to the very survival of all Jamaicans during this crisis, to be paid livable wages.
“One of the things we need to do is to ensure that the minimum wage paid to every solitary worker in Jamaica can meet their basic needs and necessities of life – which means this country has a responsibility to improve its productive capacity and capability, to the level where it can move from a minimum wage to a livable wage,” he said.
He acknowledged that this could not be done overnight, but said it must be implemented in tandem with the overhaul of labour laws that protect workers.
“Everything is interconnected. The worker is the totality of his human existentiality, so you can’t separate the worker from his family, from his social condition, from his health, from his vacation – so it’s a comprehensive whole,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said the COVID-19 crisis should be used as a golden opportunity to implement long-talked-about mechanisms to protect workers.
“Every country, including Barbados, that has had a social protection or unemployment programme has been able to respond much better in terms of cushioning the effects on its workers than those who don’t. Jamaica doesn’t have an unemployment insurance, we don’t have a comprehensive social protection policy – we have spoken about it [but] we have not acted on it. This is the time to act,” Roberts insisted.
He said this meant that the Occupational Health and Safety Bill, for example, needed to be fast-tracked for implementation.
“In all of this, we can’t afford to lower the standard of employment…We need to make sure that in all of this you protect the most vulnerable. What it means is that we have to look at some of our employment legislation and create the framework to protect people who are on fixed-term contracts, such as those in the BPO [business process outsourcing] sector, who work extended hours, whose income is perhaps insufficient, whose employment is unstable, and who are terminated at will,” he said.
On the issue of BPOs, he pointed out that in other jurisdictions creative solutions had been implemented to ensure that this sector remained up and running, notwithstanding the COVID-19 crisis.
“In the Philippines, for example, they did not close their BPO sector. Those BPOs were able to house their employees in hotels and pay for the necessary health requirements for not only the staff, but their families. Whatever the discussion is about the new arrangement with [our] BPOs, the Ministry of Labour has to be at the table to make sure that best practices and global labour standards are observed in employment, health and safety, income protection, and social protection,” he said.
Roberts argued that while Jamaica continued to appeal to the conscience of employers to act fairly other countries had changed their labour laws to include provisions such as extended sick leave benefits with pay for employees.
“This is an opportunity where some serious measures have to be taken, because if another crisis comes we are going to be in the same situation if we do nothing to strengthen our resilience, improve our capacity and capabilities, protect our most vulnerable, and create conditions for decent work,” he said.
At the same time, Robert also recommended that the Government should consider a wage subsidy programme for businesses to help keep workers employed and companies afloat amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Effectively, this means that the Government would provide funding to enterprises to prevent them from laying off workers, as it would extend to salaries.
“It would be those enterprises which have seen dramatic fall-off in their turnover – some countries have used the benchmark of 25 per cent. Government would make up the difference to ensure that they’re able to pay their salaries, keep their businesses open, and then you would have some kind of tax write-off taking place,” he explained.
The trade unionist acknowledged that this could be very expensive but argued that if businesses start to close down the effects on the economy would be devastating: “The cost of restarting – and some businesses can’t even restart – has a long-term ripple effect that will take about a generation for us to recover,” he said.
However, he said such a move would first require extensive research.
“This is where the Government needs to rely on institutions such as The University of the West Indies, and draw on international experiences and best standards. This is something that needs to be studied, and no better place than our universities. Much of the research that is done on coronavirus is done through universities; we need to put our universities to work,” Roberts suggested.
“We have to do all that is in our power to keep the doors open and maintain businesses,” he insisted.
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