In the countdown to Labour Day, trade unions have demonstrated their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. They have planned activities for Friday that fully conform with COVID-19 public health restrictions.
Instead of the traditionally huge workers’ march to Charlie King Junction followed by a mass rally, only trade union leaders will be physically present for commemorations at the birthplace of the local labour movement. A new normal will be reflected in the programme put together by the Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM).
That same degree of flexibility will have to be demonstrated by the JTUM and National Trade Union Centre (NATUC) leaders if they are to have any chance of successfully adapting to future changes in the workplace and industrial relations.
Long before COVID-19, globalisation had already brought changes that made established bargaining procedures unsustainable. Unions must be able to join forces with government and employers to navigate not just the demands of globalisation but free market and trade liberalisation as well.
There is no evidence that such matters are on the Labour Day agenda. However, based on the programme JTUM president Ancel Roget announced, he will again be training his guns on politicians on both sides, a well-established theme of June 19 commemorations.
While Mr Roget is sure to frame these issues in the context of workers’ rights, he ought not to ignore more pressing issues overshadowing Labour Day 2020.
Unavoidable economic and social changes brought about by COVID-19 need to be tackled head-on. Mergers, restructuring, downsizing of businesses and new hiring practices have serious implications for industrial relations.
June 19 is the ideal forum for Mr Roget and other labour leaders to confront these challenges. This is also an opportune time for them to outline just how they are adapting and adjusting their approaches to protect jobs and prepare workers for changing workplace conditions. Their innovative ideas for improving worker efficiency and productivity should also be shared.
Trade unions need to channel more of their energies to pressing issues such as the environment, social policies, human rights, decent work, human dignity, poverty alleviation and human resource development. Why not discuss more of these matters on Labour Day?
Fiery speeches from the Fyzabad platform will be of limited shelf life when the industrial relations climate is defined by the levels of uncertainty that currently prevail in the new normal brought on by the pandemic.
A matter that should be of concern to Mr Roget and other labour leaders is the size of T&T’s informal sector. It accounts for a significant number of jobs but is most vulnerable to shocks, as the pandemic has so painfully demonstrated in the last three months.
So while it might be tempting to stick with the tried and true, the 21st century has ushered in a new era of industrial relations and that is a fact trade unionists can no longer ignore. A lot is riding on how quickly the labour movement adapts to this reality.