The opportunity is being taken to respond to the letter titled `Unionists must work for workers not themselves’ (SN 7th May, 2018). B. Winslow Parris’ letter is revealing on many fronts and the facts are herein being addressed:
1. The trade union movement in Guyana was founded and operates on the principle that Labour’s interest lies in the workplace and wider society. The proof resides in numerous laws, rules, and time-honoured principles impacting the workplace and wider society that were initiated by and had the support of Labour. The movement represents workers and sees this category as past, present and potential members of the workforce, be they unionised or non-unionised. Labour has a responsibility to influence the decisions that impact their conditions at work and the quality of living within the communities they reside. It’s a responsibility taken seriously and will not be shirked.
For instance, the housewife alluded to, there is interest in ensuring the breadwinner earns a decent wage/salary that can impact on the spending power and quality of life in the family that the housewife usually presides over. With regards to the children in the home, Labour’s interest cuts across issues such as quality public education, universal healthcare, attendance at school, providing of nutritious meals, ability to purchase uniforms and school supplies, and being educated in a safe and healthy environment where educators/teachers are not only adequately compensated but allowed to play a meaningful role in shaping the child’s behaviour and knowledge to make them productive citizens.
2. No, Labour does not fall under the `Ministry of Social Cohesion.’ There is no ministry of social cohesion, there is a Department of Social Cohesion that falls under the purview of the Ministry of the Presidency, and a minister assigned that departmental responsibility.
3. Labour has been relegated to a Department which falls within the Ministry of Social Protection. Social Protection is not Labour, it in an element of Labour which represents the totality of the workers’ welfare. And yes, there is a need for a Ministry of Labour as hereunder outlined:
i. The historical evolution of this country shows that labour reflected a sordid history of exploitation, brutalisation and treatment as sub-humans. This inhumane treatment has been resisted and fought against from the moment of enslavement of the Amerindian community, the captured arrival of Africans as slaves, the arrival of indentured servants, and by the colonised;
ii. Economists have considered Land, Labour, Capital and Entrepreneurship as the factors of production. None of the factors is possible without the production, consumption and distribution of labour. Even in the most mechanised society the presence of labour is valued and considered important, in all and every part of the developmental chain. There’s no country with our historical experiences that does not see Labour taking pre-eminence. This recognition is not treated with lightly;
iii. In 1953 when we elected our first government- though limited in power- among the first things Premier Cheddi Jagan did was to establish a Ministry of Labour, whose political head was a Minister of the Cabinet. That principle and value for Labour was held up until 10th May 2015. This 1953 Government had within the likes of Forbes Burnham, Eusi Kwayana, Ashton Chase, etc.
What our indigenous government signalled to Guyanese, by elevating the colonial Department of Labour to a Ministry of Labour, is that the workers/citizens would no longer be treated as sub-human and an incidental factor, marking a crowning achievement to the centuries of struggles by our forebears against the notion of being mules and treatment as beasts of burden. Our ancestors fought for the right to a place at the table and to be treated as human beings with the capacity to play a meaningful role in their development and society as a whole;
iv. In 2015 when the APNU+AFC took the decision to relegate Labour to a department, as was done during the colonial era, it marked a retrogressive step in our evolution- though I’m inclined at this stage to think the decision was not well thought out given historical meanings, ramifications and development- deserving to be addressed through ventilation and correction;
v. The trade union does not seek a new ministry to represent Labour. History has shown Labour incorporated in others ministries with equal prominence. We have had a Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Ministry of Labour and Human Services, etc. prior to May 2015.
It is unfair and unjust to the struggles and achievements of Labour-which is the 20th century movement that laid the foundation for internal self-government, fundamental rights and freedoms, and the presence of the current corps of political leadership- to be cast aside in a corner. How can there be justification for a Ministry of Business (capital/employer/entrepreneurship), a Ministry of Natural Resources (land) and none that gives pre-eminence to Labour (workers), when the success of both ministries relies on treating workers with due regard and dignity as ensconced in the Constitution and Labour Laws of Guyana?
Further, when labour is relegated it means that workers are no longer considered a vital factor in the nation’s development but merely incidental to. These realities run contrary to the slogan of a “Good Life” which Labour views as workers being a direct beneficiary of, thorough meaningful involvement (Article 13, 38 and 149C of the Guyana Constitution), and not incidental to.
The trade unions’ repeated call for a Ministry of Labour is grounded in the aforementioned principles and ensuring the well-fought for gains are being secured and advanced.