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Paula-Mae Weekes

Fellow citizens,

Labour Day 2020 is being observed in this country during a challenging and uncertain juncture for our labour force. For the past few months, workers at home and abroad have experienced extreme disruption to their lives and livelihoods as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic which has wreaked havoc across global health systems, social structures and economies.

Many families in Trinidad and Tobago have found themselves in financially precarious positions due to the impact of measures necessary to curb the spread of the virus. For several months, businesses were shuttered, people were laid off or furloughed and those in the informal sector unable to bring in income as a result of restrictions on movement. Other personnel, essential to the national response, were on call day and night, putting their lives on the line to prevent the deepening of the crisis.

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the workforce have been undeniably far-reaching and the economic repercussions are predicted to be felt for years to come. No sector has been left unscathed, and none can afford to be left behind.

Successfully navigating this “new normal” calls for greater flexibility, cooperation, innovation and creativity by all entities as a means of insulation against further shocks.

Intrinsic to the national effort are our trade unions, which are the beneficiaries of the hard work, unity and resolve of the 20th century heroes we celebrate today. The architects of the labour movement fought for fair wages, better working and living conditions, and security of tenure—a better future for their fellow brothers and sisters. Today’s labour leaders must improve upon that proud legacy, working not only to protect and promote their members’ rights, but also to ensure that they fulfil their duty to country.

The road ahead is not straightforward, and everyone will have to make sacrifices. While legitimate grievances have to be settled, an adversarial approach must give way to collaboration and compromise. These adjustments must be made by all stakeholders even as the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers’ Association and the Ministry of Education seek to come to an agreement regarding the Secondary Entrance Assessment and the Trinidad and Tobago Registered Nurses Association lobbies for outstanding remuneration.

As the economy reopens, there will be no business as usual for our country for some time to come. Our hard-fought tradition of trade unionism must keep pace with the current and evolving realities facing this nation at this time, and work towards equipping, supporting and guiding members to make the changes necessary to weather present and future storms.

Workers, unions, the government and other employers must heed the imperative of modernisation and seek to upgrade and transform their operations. Archaic and regimented systems cannot obtain in this new paradigm and institutions must embrace technology and become more accommodating in their employment patterns. During the pandemic, we witnessed many workplaces making use of Zoom and other platforms to facilitate working remotely or offer their services electronically; others turned to diversifying their activities, manufacturing essential products such as hand sanitisers and masks.

Businesses and institutions will do well to unite and develop strategies to manage the way ahead, each one learning from the other. Trinidad and Tobago has done well in flattening the curve, but as we emerge from this period of shut-in, let us resolve to work together, make sacrifices where necessary and support local initiatives.

There are many people still experiencing severe hardship and who require urgent assistance in order to stay afloat. Throughout the pandemic, I was heartened to see the generosity and compassion shown by local organisations and individuals to those in need. I urge Trinbagonians to continue their well-doing and in keeping with the spirit of Labour Day, be our brother’s keeper. In the immortal words of the late Pat Bishop, ‘Until all have crossed, none have crossed and some we have to carry.’

Even with contracted observances taking place today, where only the leaders of various unions will march, I salute all workers, from those who are at the frontlines of the crisis to those who contributed to the cause by simply staying at home.

I wish all citizens a safe, happy and healthy Labour Day.