The nation was recently informed by Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection, Keith Scott, of the government’s intention to bring to an end the practice of single parent women, employed in private security firms, having to work night shifts with all of the dangers associated with it. To me, it is most surprising that this decision has become controversial to the point that known women rights activists have declared their opposition to it.
In political terms the opposition to the proposal exemplifies the difficulties the APNU+AFC government has to confront in its quest to address some social and economic ills in the society. The scenario which the government is often faced with is one which indicates it is damned when it takes action to bring relief not only to its constituents, but to the wider population and damned, when it does nothing to address the problems. While this is not a situation that is unique in governance and politics worldwide, in so far as Guyana is concerned the more fundamental issue of Guyanese social/political culture is of primary importance in the search for solutions.
For many years I have been paying keen attention to this matter. As a result I have come around to the view that Guyana, in the absence of national consensus on major social/economic and political matters, will find meaningful change difficult to achieve. In the process we, as a nation, run the risk of becoming victims of our divisions.
I wish at this point to very frankly and unambiguously state what my feelings are on this matter. In doing so I wish to begin by saying that the majority of women employed by the security services who work the night shift are African women. It is our women folk who, because of the limited opportunities in employment are forced to identify with these dangerous jobs which impact negatively on their person, family and children. Unfortunately, these workers are at the bottom of the social/economic ladder. For them the bottom line in their employment decisions is determined by the need to put food on the table and to provide other necessaries for their children. The African condition is characterized by economic deprivation for large numbers of our people, who are victims of circumstances and are in no position to exercise employment options in keeping within the norms of human justice and safety.
It is no secret that the destruction of the African community is reflected in part, in the rise in the number of single parent households headed by women. Along with this negative situation is the development of single parent mothers, who, in working the night shift, are forced to leave their children unsupervised and unprotected. It is common knowledge that the consequences of this development are teenage pregnancy, negligence, high rates of school drop-outs, poor performance in schools and a life of crime for our boys and young men. While removing single parent mothers from night shift work is not a solution for all the above problems, a policy decision that commits the government to end this unwarranted situation, should, in my opinion, be supported. What we need to do in Guyana, is to struggle for alternative forms of employment within the private and public sectors, with adequate and appropriate remuneration, and to assist in providing avenues for self-employment for women who would be affected by the new policy.
While I understand the position of women rights activists who are genuinely concerned with possible employment and economic difficulties the proposed policy can have on this segment of working women, I am not sure it will play out that way. I know of no government policy that has been implemented without resistance by the beneficiaries of the old order, which in this case are the employers. It is my judgement that even if a law is passed giving effect to the proposed policy, the adjustment to the new measures – given the best intention of the government ‒ will take time before it is implemented.
Despite the rhetoric of the owners of private security firms, the likelihood of mass lay-off by these security firms will not take place since, being the kind of exploiters of labour that they are, they will be unwilling to affect their profit margins by taking such action. In short, unless government is prepared to put in place an effective regulatory framework to ensure compliance with the laws if it goes ahead with its intended action, owners of private security firms are likely to ignore the new measures.
I end by posing this question. Are we to accept the present situation of African women working the night shift with all its negatives as a permanent condition? For me this is unacceptable. However, if the majority of those employed in this situation are against the proposed policy the government must be mindful of the parking meter saga and rethink its approach to this matter.