The Current Industrial Relations Climate In Trinidad And Tobago
Over the past few years we have seen increasingly forceful moves by trade unions in this country to influence national policies and issues. Some of the rhetoric by the trade union leaders appears at times to be confrontational rather than conciliatory. This may be borne out of frustrated expectations which originate from political and economic circumstances. Whatever the reason for their modus operandi, it is having a negative impact on the workers they represent and the wider society. If this situation is not addressed as a matter of priority it will very likely deteriorate and there will be unintended adverse consequences, including loss of employment opportunities and declining standards of living for those whose interests should be served by the unions.
Especially with the increasing frequency of strikes and other industrial action related to negotiations for new collective agreements – which seem to be considered just a part and parcel of the negotiation process – there is urgent need for a change in the manner in which this country conducts industrial relations. The principal stakeholders must re-examine their contributions to the current state of affairs and resolve to bring about the necessary transformation.
We need to start the process of change now, although it may take some time, requiring as it does, consensus on the way forward by all stakeholders. It requires an understanding of the realities of the global economy and the imperative for small economies such as ours to survive and in the longer term, to prosper.
A very brief environmental scan will reveal that many major economies are in dire straits. We have followed with interest the struggles of countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. We have seen reports of the difficulties experienced by the United States of America. Closer to home we know the plight of small island states in the Caribbean.
Trinidad and Tobago has been in a more fortunate position due to our rich hydrocarbon industry and prices being unexpectedly high. However, this cannot be the basis of planning sustainable economic growth and development. The future requires all the social partners to work together, replacing confrontation by cooperation and collaboration.
This can only be accomplished if there are suitable multipartite mechanisms established by the government and adhered to by all stakeholders (government, labour, private sector and civil society) whereby meaningful consultation leads to consensus on common objectives and the strategies by which these can be achieved. There must be a major paradigm shift from dependency on oil and gas revenues to support artificially high employee compensation without regard for productivity.
Recent developments at PETROTRIN and Trinidad Cement Limited should serve as a wake-up call to the national community. Both these companies are burdened with heavy debt which are potentially crippling. In normal circumstances, this could require rescue packages which involve workers being asked to make concessions for the survival of the companies. Instead, the unions have been clamouring for increases in wages, salaries and benefits and showing little concern for the well-being of the enterprise and the wider national community. In the case of PETROTRIN the political considerations appear to be taking precedence over economic factors. In the case of Trinidad Cement Limited the union seems not to accept that the company’s current labour costs are weighted when compared to both international and local norms and the company could be on the verge of bankruptcy if their demands are met. Interestingly, the shareholders have suffered tremendous loss in the value of their stocks and have had to go without dividends, and losses are also being incurred by the workers themselves, who have had to forgo their wages over the past four weeks while on strike action. It should be noted that several mutual funds hold shares in TCL and hence unitholders could be impacted.
It is also interesting to note that wages and salaries of workers as published in the newspapers at these two companies are among the highest in the country. For instance, at PETROTRIN a labourer is paid a basic wage of more than $9,000 per month based on a recent settlement whereas at Trinidad Cement Limited the same union, the OWTU, has rejected an offer of more than $13,000 per month for a labourer and has taken strike action.
If the national minimum wage of $12.50 per hour is taken as a reference point for purposes of comparison, the wage of a labourer at PETROTRIN is more than four times that of the national minimum wage and the wage of a labourer at Trinidad Cement Limited is more than six times that of the national minimum wage. This takes no account of hefty benefits for these workers.
There can be no justification for such irrational approaches to industrial relations. It is time to adopt new methods of resolving issues and to put the issue of pay for performance and productivity on the front burner. The era of ‘might is right’ is a luxury we can no longer afford. We need to usher in a new dispensation of enlightened industrial relations to create a truly developed society.