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The call made yesterday by Industrial Court President Deborah Thomas-Felix for urgent action to deal with the impact of COVID-19 on the labour market needs to be met with a tripartite response from labour, business and government.

In her address at a special sitting of the Industrial Court’s 2020/2021 term, Mrs Thomas-Felix underscored the need to “mobilise to fight a common, unseen enemy.” She also noted that “the situation we face is urgent and critical requiring our joint collective commitment …”

With the uncertain new terrain being created by the pandemic, there will be need for dialogue on policy challenges in the new world of work that is evolving.

According to Mrs Thomas-Felix, that social dialogue must take place now in a spirit of respect and compromise. She said the difficult work needed may require “reviewing some terms of the existing collective agreements, workplace policies and individual contracts of employment.”

She added: “There might also be a need to re-examine and re-think some of the workplace arrangements, such as leave entitlement, health and safety rules and regulations, retrenchment, layoffs (if provided for in collective agreements), and other terms and conditions of employment.

“Day to day management issues such as the provision of personal protection equipment for workers, arrangements for staff to work remotely, the possible rotation of staff, the re-examining of the supply chain, new customer service approaches, and new health and safety practices are now front-burner issues for all enterprises to consider.”

Her call for social dialogue comes less than a week ahead of the release of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) latest analysis of the effects of COVID-19 on labour income and markets.

In July, the ILO reported that the world of work had been profoundly affected by the pandemic and long-term livelihoods and wellbeing of millions are being threatened.

Like Mrs Thomas-Felix, the ILO sees a critical role for governments, workers and employers in the battle against COVID-19.

The pandemic has already had a severe impact on our region, Latin America and Caribbean, where there has been a sharp increase in unemployment rates. The region’s average unemployment rate, which was 8.1 per cent at the end of 2019, is now projected to increase between four and five percentage points.

The ILO has recommended strategies and policies to rebuild labour markets based on “stimulating the economy and employment; supporting business and worker income; protecting workers in the workplace and achieving effective solutions through social dialogue.”

The mechanism for that level of dialogue existed, seemingly for a fleeting moment, during the first term of the Dr Keith Rowley administration.

The National Tripartite Advisory Council (NTAC), launched in March 2017 with a mandate that included “maintenance of industrial peace and harmony and devising mechanisms to create additional job opportunities,” is what T&T needs for a time like this.

It now needs to be reconstituted and differences set aside so the important work of developing labour market resilience against COVID-19 can begin.