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Workers’ Viewpoint
Thursday, 09 April 2020 12:31


Photo credit: GIS


Sunday, April 5, 2020 edition of Workers' Viewpoint on VOB 92.9


It is now widely accepted that the COVID-19 pandemic is more than a public health crisis. It is also a social and economic crisis that is shattering big businesses, industries and countries across the world.

COVID-19 has significantly altered the situation of work and workers in ways that governments, employers and unions could not forecast, throwing us into some urgent responses.

Now more than ever, responsible governments are recognising that we need to get it right so that history does not repeat the situation of the 1930s. Now more than ever, there is growing and widespread acceptance that a decent work response is accepted by governments, including ours, as being at the centre of “getting it right”.

Decent work is predicated on the pillars of social dialogue, social protection, fundamental principles and rights at work, and employment.

On the subject of employment in Barbados, employers are being encouraged to support the national effort to maintain employment. This call comes against a recognition that many employers have suffered directly from the dramatic fall-off in travel as flights and hotel bookings have been cancelled, and the fact that productivity has slowed significantly for businesses which cannot facilitate remote working. Workers who could have been classified as being in secure jobs are now confronted with uncertainty.

This fact is compounded as Barbados has come face to face with the stark reality that there are far too many workers who are not eligible for social protection in the form of unemployment and other benefits. Yet Government must still develop tailored responses for these workers, to ensure that the cycle of poverty and inequality in our society is not amplified.

The Barbados Workers’ Union’s (BWU’s) call has been insistent therefore on the need for active steps to be taken to prevent lay-offs and to protect the vulnerable. Even where workers have access to social security, we cannot run the risk of the unemployment and severance funds of the NIS being overly pressured. If this happens, we may very well find that in a very short time the funds may prove insufficient in the face of a pandemic for which the duration cannot be properly forecast.

The BWU is very aware that the only way this expectation will be met is if business continuity plans and responses are developed to ensure a secure source of income for employers and workers as we navigate in these unchartered waters. The BWU is committed to this.

Lay-offs are catastrophic for families, especially where the only or last income source for a household has been cut off. This is the clear reality for those in informal employment - that is all those workers who are not registered, regulated or protected by existing legal or regulatory frameworks. In other words, all workers who don’t pay into the social security system, and who in turn are not entitled to its benefits.

These are not only the self-employed, but these are also the workers who are on contract, sitting next to other workers daily, sometimes for years, doing the same job, adding the same value but who employers label as casual to avoid the financial burden of such obligations as NIS, medical, pensions and other allowances. These are the carers of our children, these are hotel workers, these are the general workers, supermarket workers – these are the workers who are now on the front line of delivery to ensure that we can still maintain our livelihoods during the difficult days and months ahead.

COVID-19 has dramatically reinforced the BWU’s position that Government must act more decisively to bring more employers and workers into the net of social security. This means that Government itself must lead by example, not only in its hiring practices but also in the way it engages contract work.

The BWU’s comments must be viewed as instructive even as Barbados anticipates a boom in construction to drive economic activity in the coming months. Government must police contracts that have been awarded for construction to protect workers and the NIS system from those employers who engage contract labour and pay in cash so that they can go under the radar and gain advantage over other employers who are fulfilling their statutory obligations and social responsibility to workers. The workers suffer and ultimately, the country suffers.

As Government tries to flatten the upward curve of infection, the BWU is supporting the call to protect health care workers and other frontline workers who risk their own health for us every day. But I wish at this time to draw attention to those working in our ports, particularly those at the (Barbados Port Inc.) BPI who are delivering medical equipment, food and other essentials at this time. They too must be lauded for their efforts and they must be adequately protected.

In many respects, Port workers because of the nature of their work, cannot observe the physical distancing protocols which have been established but they must be adequately protected. Such protection does not relate merely to the supply of PPE and I hasten to commend the efforts of the Port Management in this regard. The BWU continues to represent these workers, particularly during this period of national shut down and tremendous health concern, to ensure that they are not overly exposed to work that is not essential and critical. 

Now is the time for all of us, not just workers, to treat in good faith. Now is not the time to behave as if we have lost all sense and sensibility. Principles and reasonableness still must have a place, and more so now. For this reason, the BWU has been busy with employers discussing good faith implications of COVID-19 on their working arrangements.

During our May Day observance under the theme “Secure Workers, Sustainable Economies” we will be highlighting a number of these employers in the coming weeks. 

In closing let me encourage us all to exercise personal responsibility for containing the spread of COVID-19. The measures that the Government has put in place regarding the curfew and reduced commercial activity will mean nothing if we fail in our personal responsibility to stay at home and contain the spread.

Keep safe Barbados! Together we can do this!

Prepared by:            General Secretary



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