I note with concern a news item in the local media, covering the release of a report from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) yesterday (January 18) about the status of labour standards in Jamaica.
Although not captured in the news story, the ICFTU credits Jamaica with ratifying all eight (8) core conventions of the International Labour Organization, (ILO) and traces a progression of legislative reforms to support compliance with the spirit and letter of the conventions. This includes the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, and Collective Bargaining; Equal Remuneration; Discrimination; the Worst Forms of Child Labour; and Minimum Age.
Where we take issue with the ICFTU report itself is in its overstatement of some challenges in the Jamaican workplace with regard to the following issues:
Freedom of association and the right to representation, with special reference to the essential services.
Gender biases in terms of employment and parity in remuneration
Efforts towards the elimination of the worst forms of child labour.
Freedom of association and the right to representation
Whereas the report correctly states that the right to strike is neither protected nor prohibited by law, it incorrectly posits that workers in the essential services ‘are not allowed to strike’. Section 9, subsections 3-5 of the Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act (LRIDA), clearly outlines the conditions under which workers in the essential services are allowed to strike. If the Minister of Labour fails to act within ten (10) days after referral of their grievance, the workers may then exercise their freedom to strike. In the case of the Industrial Disputes Tribunal, the act also specifies an acceptable schedule in which a ruling should be handed down.
The right to strike does not exist in Jamaica in any sector, but the freedom to strike is respected under the LRIDA. Embedded in the legislation however is a reciprocal freedom by the employer to act as s/he sees fit when workers exercise this freedom.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that the right to strike remains off the law books at this time by mutual consent of the tripartite, including the trade unions, employers and the Government of Jamaica. As moderators of the process to revise the LRIDA in 2002, the Government of Jamaica received and supported a motion by the trade unions to enshrine the right to strike. However, in keeping with modern industrial relations practice the employers countered by outlining the commensurate responsibilities and conditionalities to balance this right. After much debate, the unions decided that these conditions and responsibilities were too onerous, and opted to continue with the less stringent option of the ‘freedom to strike’.
Another dangerous overstatement in the report is in reference to the bauxite/mining sector, where it states that ‘strikes.are illegal’. Section 6 subsection 5b of the 2002 amendment of the LRIDA clearly states that workers in this sector do have the freedom to strike under the law. There is however a rider in consideration of the importance of the sector to the local economy. Disgruntled workers are expected to serve notice of their intention to strike 72 hours in advance.
According to the ICFTU report, ‘many workers have been hired as contractors, which facilitates dismissal and reduces pay and benefits.’ This statement is at best flawed.
The definition of the worker as outlined in section 2, subsection (b) of the 2002 revision of the LRIDA clearly captures several workers who are under contractual work agreements, giving them similar rights under the law to those of employees. Under the Jamaican law, the definition of a worker is:
“An individual who has entered into or works or normally works (or where the employment has ceased, worked) under contract, however described, in circumstances where that individual works under the direction, supervision and control of the employers regarding hours of work, nature of work, management of discipline and such other conditions as are similar to those which apply to an employee.” In fact, when I addressed Parliament last week during the announcement of the new Minimum Wage, I not only reminded the nation of this remedy, but I also served notice that the Ministry of Labour and Social Security would step up its monitoring this year to hold accountable, those employers who are in breach thereof. In the spirit of the ILO convention, I also indicated that one of my main priorities this year would be to amend the law to make the penalties for non-compliance more punitive.
Another factor to consider is that the terms of dismissal and the rates of pay and benefits under any work contract have to be considered on a case by case basis. It is difficult for the Ministry of Labour to assist any individual worker who signs his/her agreement to a loose, insecure arrangement with an employer. My advice to every Jamaican worker has been consistent during my tenure – get the facts, and the best advice available before signing off on any work contract. The Ministry is well equipped with officers who are willing and able to remind you of your rights under the law, so you can insist that your employer is offering the conditions of ‘decent work’.
Gender issues
As the report correctly states, Jamaica has introduced several pieces of legislation in respect of the right of women to equal and fair treatment at the workplace. It is accurate to state that the balance has not been fully achieved, but it is public knowledge that the Bureau of Women’s Affairs under the Ministry of Development, and guided by the internationally respected gender rights expert Dr. Glenda Simms has been working tirelessly to fast track the status of women both within and outside of the work place.
Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour
In the international scheme of things, Jamaica is barely on the radar of nations with serious child labour problems. However, every well-thinking Jamaican would agree that a single instance of exploitation of our children is too much.
The ICFTU report erroneously states that 4% of all Jamaican children are thus engaged, but according to recent ILO figures, produced independently of the Government of Jamaica, this is only 2%, with a miniscule subset involved in prostitution and other unacceptable and dehumanizing activity.
The Ministry of Labour & Social Security, under funding from the ILO implemented a 2-year national programme in 2002, involving detailed research and a comprehensive programme of social interventions to address the issue. We are determined to reduce the numbers even further, until the problem becomes virtually negligible.
The fruits of this programme are evident, with the ILO reporting a steady decline in the number of Jamaican children in the illegal job market. In 1994 the figure was 23,000, trending down annually to the figure of 16,240 at the beginning of 2003. The ILO report stated clearly that ‘this level of children involved in economic activity is relatively low compared with other developing countries, and may have decreased somewhat since the previous survey.’
Progress notwithstanding, the Ministry of Labour continues to be active in seeking to secure uninterrupted funding for our activities in respect of the elimination of the worst forms of child labour.
In closing I must put in proper context, two of the recommendations at the end of the report, which I have not yet addressed.
Export Processing Zones: The situation is more complex than the report suggests, as ‘EPZ’ operations tend to be ‘fickle and footloose’. Many workers opt to take on this form of employment as an economic bridge while seeking a more stable environment. Efforts by the trade unions to represent workers in this situation usually prompt a withdrawal of that enterprise in preference for a more ‘friendly’ environment. It is always a very delicate balancing act to provide adequate employment, while securing workers rights.
In respect of sexual harassment at work, legislation is being drafted to deal with this issue, while we continue to implement policy measures.
I welcome public discussion on these very important labour issues, and wish to suggest that the exercise be tempered by greater research.
Under the Access to Information Act, the Ministry of Labour and Social Security has put the necessary machinery in provide the relevant information to the public.
We will continue the sustained national effort to raise the core labour standards in pursuit of our commitments under all the relevant ILO conventions.

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