Protecting workers’ rights

The outcomes of the recent sorties by teams of officials from the Ministry of Social Protection to workplaces across the country, most recently to the operations of the Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc (BCGI) and to the business community in New Amsterdam, provide revealing glimpses into the extent to which employers are unmindful, even contemptuous of some key provisions of the country’s constitution as well as the conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in matters pertaining to the rights and entitlements of workers. Production and profits come first. In some instances the rights and the well-being of employees are not even part of the equation.

It transpires that numbered amongst the worst transgressors are foreign companies operating in Guyana including a mining company in which, incidentally, the Government of Guyana has a minority share. Recent evidence also suggests that some expatriate managers combine contempt for our labour laws with a corresponding disregard for official admonition. There is a recent case in which the Managing Director of a Chinese company operating here refused to respond to a summons by a Minister of Government to discuss adherence to the labour laws.

There have been instances too in which employers have refused to countenance union representation, in one instance, we are told, on the advice of the entity’s Attorney, who, presumably, would have known that the Constitution of Guyana speaks unambiguously to freedom of association. To deny workers the right to trade union representation, therefore, is to fly in the face of the constitution.

Some of the worst worker abuse occurs in the area of safety and health. After her return from the operations of the BCGI Minister Simona Broomes made some pretty harrowing disclosures about aspects of the safety and health situation which bauxite workers there have to endure. Cursory glances at worksites around the capital reveal that safety infractions are altogether commonplace.

There are numerous cases of long denial of payments to workers pertaining to terminal benefits, leave and overtime which the then Ministry of Labour had ignored for years and which the Ministry of Social Protection is beginning to investigate and to settle. From all appearances some employers have, for years, been having a field day, and these days the Ministry of Social Protection is crowded with employers, employees and ex-employees discussing and effecting settlement of long-overdue claims. The non-payment of employee NIS contributions has grown to proportions of a national scandal.

If the transgression of workers’ rights cannot be said to have had its origin under the previous political administration, the practice had grown worse during its tenure. There is evidence that up until recently the then Ministry of Labour remained decidedly indifferent to employer transgressions of workers’ rights, the reported excesses of the Russian management at BCGI being a case in point. Indeed, it does not appear that we had grown accustomed to properly briefing foreign companies in matters pertaining to workers’ rights and entitlements and to the country’s labour laws, as well as constitutional provisions with regard to the treatment of workers. Moreover, there have been instances in which locals hired by expatriate management to advise on matters relating to human resources management and industrial relations may have, either through indifference or complicity, contributed to the institution of harsh anti-worker conditions at workplaces.

Business support organizations like the Private Sector Commission, the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Guyana Gold & Diamond Miners Association which, surely, have a compelling moral responsibility to urge employers to adhere to labour laws and to respect the rights and entitlements of their employees, have been decidedly indifferent to their responsibilities in this regard. They too, arguably, are answerable for the prevailing state of affairs.

Trade unions, meanwhile, have failed to respond to employer transgressions, their weaknesses resulting partially from political pressure and partially from their own operational limitations. There is, unquestionably, a serious crisis of leadership in the movement. Save and except in a few instances, trade unions appear to have lost their way. One must hope that the Ministry of Social Protection’s endorsement, just last week, of the constitutional right of workers to join trade unions of their choice, does not escape the attention of the labour movement. The   pronouncement certainly creates an opening for the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union to seek to restore its broken ties with BCGI.

These days, the Ministry of Social Protection and its crusading Junior Minister would appear to be employing a mix of assertiveness and diplomacy to restore the balance. Her engagement last Thursday’s with some of the leading Chinese investors in Guyana was   intended to create a greater mindfulness of the Ministry’s preparedness to dialogue with employers. On the other hand she appears equally prepared to ‘tough it out’ with those employers who might be disinclined to reform in their worker management practices. She understands that her Ministry cannot allow the momentum that has been created to subside and the government must ensure that ‘other interests’ are not allowed to derail the process that she has started.

One of the more important points that the Minister has made in her discourses with this newspaper has to do with her belief that adherence to labour laws and respect for workers’ rights and entitlements would result in the creation of a qualitatively enhanced labour force and by extension, an economy that would be better equipped for investment. If she is right (and we have no reason to believe that she isn’t) then there is really no reason why what she is attempting to undertake, that is, the overhaul of a decadent and counterproductive labour relations culture, should not attract the unstinting support of the private sector umbrella organizations, the trade unions and most importantly, the government that she represents.

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