Teachers blanked online classes on Thursday and nurses stayed away from work to pray on Friday. These back-to-back actions that resulted in elevated levels of absenteeism among two categories of frontline workers were the latest evidence of the deteriorating industrial relations climate in this country.
With the looming threat of further action from these disgruntled public sector employees, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley offered some hope yesterday that the issues raised by teachers and nurses will get some attention from his administration but did not elaborate.
But restoring industrial peace among these workers will not be easy.
Long before COVID-19, engagements across the labour landscape had been confrontational rather than conciliatory and the withdrawal of trade unions from the National Tripartite Advisory Council (NTAC) has meant fewer opportunities for the dialogue that should be taking place in these difficult pandemic times.
With the coronavirus wreaking havoc in so many workplaces, surviving now and thriving post-pandemic requires the building of a labour force with the skills and mindset to compete in a global arena that is undergoing rapid and momentous change.
The priority now for all concerned—government, business and labour—should be on developing an enabling economic and working environment and that is only possible if good industrial relations are developed and maintained across productive sectors, including the public service.
But there has been little or no effort in that direction.
Since March 2020, when COVID-19 was first detected within our borders, there have been measures, primarily in the form of income relief and a ramping up of social services, to lessen hardships on the population. But even these could not safeguard against the job losses and declines in income suffered by many during the periods of protracted lockdowns.
Then there is the matter of the frontline workers who have had some job and income security but have been working in particularly trying pandemic conditions for more than a year. And they have done so, according to their union representatives, on salaries and wages that have not kept pace with the rising cost of living.
Their actions were timed to get attention—just a few days before the finance minister presents the budget and in-person classes resume for vaccinated students in Forms 4 to 6. It also took place in a week where there was public concern about rising costs, including increases in taxi fares on some routes and higher prices for food items.
In these circumstances the current situation where the Rowley administration and public sector workers are not making any real attempt at dialogue is untenable.
The unprecedented workplace challenges brought about by COVID-19 present opportunities for dialogue and a creative novel approach to labour relations that have regrettably not been seized by either side.
Both sides should recognise now that it cannot be business as usual. The world has changed too much for the old bargaining strategies to work. Instead, it is time to change course and explore interest-based bargaining, which can help both sides come to mutually beneficial agreements.
Non-traditional terms and conditions that benefit workers and contribute to a productive and harmonious work environment can be a solution where everyone benefits. But it starts with dialogue which is sadly lacking these days.