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FRANKLY SPEAKING: Labour mandate seems forgotten

FRANKLY SPEAKING: Labour mandate seems forgotten

By Caswell Franklyn | Sun, October 21, 2012 - 12:00 AM

A name change is overdue for both major political parties in this country. Even though the word “labour” forms part of their names, neither one can seriously be considered labour parties since labour issues and the welfare of workers have long ceased being their priorities.

The Barbados Labour Party (BLP) had its roots firmly planted, by the founding fathers, in the labour movement, and to the extent that the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) is an offshoot of the BLP, we can safely conclude that both parties owe their existence to the labouring classes.

To be fair, the early labour parties worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of workers. Many of the benefits that are now taken for granted were introduced when labour parties understood the reasons for their formation and continued existence.

Barbadian workers of today could not imagine life without paid vacations but prior to 1952, private sector workers had no such rights. Things changed with the commencement of the Holidays With Pay Act of that year. Also in 1952, Government passed the Protection Of Wages Act which among other things made it illegal to pay workers in anything but money.

Additionally, it became an offence to pay wages in an establishment that sold intoxicating liquor, unless the worker was employed there. That might seem insignificant now but back then, in numerous cases, when men were paid in rum shops none of those wages ever made it home to support their families.

The National Insurance and Social Security Scheme was introduced in 1966 which saw workers being entitled under certain conditions to: pensions; sickness, injury, maternity and survivors’ benefits. In 1981, unemployment benefits became part of the range of entitlements under that scheme.

Then in 1971 yet another revolutionary piece of legislation, the Severance Payments Act, was passed to provide compensation for persons who were dismissed for redundancy and for related matters.

Probably, the most revolutionary piece of legislation that catered to the needs of the labouring classes was the Tenantry Freehold Purchase Act of 1980. This altered the Constitution to give people who lived on plantation tenantries the right to purchase the lots on which they lived for ten cents per square foot.

For the first time in the history of Barbados, this category of worker could build permanent dwelling houses with indoor plumbing. Admittedly, the working conditions that existed in the 1950s were crying out for some measure of relief. It was therefore easy for a labour party to identify working conditions that were in need of amelioration.

After the initial flurry of activity to better the conditions of the labouring masses, the two labour parties have apparently gone to sleep on the job; waking intermittently to address workers’ issues but quickly returning to slumber.

To my mind, their behaviour of late is sufficient grounds for removing or suspending the labour credentials of both parties for failure to respond to the needs of their core constituency. It is as if both parties have drifted too far away from their philosophical moorings.

Legislation that would be of benefit to workers is allowed to languish in no-man’s-land for far too long:

The Occupational Pensions Benefits Act which provided a comprehensive set of rules for pension schemes was passed in 2003 but was only brought into force in February 2011;

The 2005 Health And Safety At Work Act has not been brought into force as yet. However, the Minister of Labour is promising to bring it into force in January 2013; we shall wait and see;

• It took about ten years to finally pass the Public Service Act, flaws and all, in 2007, in the dying stages of the Owen Arthur administration. Prime Minister Freundel Stuart has acknowledged that the act is causing major problems for the administration of the Public Service, but making amendments to fix the problems seem not to be a priority of his labour party; and

The Employment Rights Act was passed in May this year, after a gestation period of ten or more years, over the objections of the Opposition and employers’ representatives. Its commencement was gazetted and then somehow “ungazetted”. This is unheard of, but then again, anything goes when dealing with workers.

Those few examples do not speak well for the existence of not one but two labour parties in this country. Their founding fathers would not be able to recognize what their parties have metamorphosed into. The only consolation is that neither of the two Right Excellent gentlemen, Sir Grantley Adams and Errol Barrow, is here to witness the shift in focus of their labour parties.  

Maybe, it is time for the BLP and the DLP to go into retreat on what their mission as labour parties should be. “Labour Party” should not just be part of a name to remind workers of the glory days; it should be a philosophy with clearly defined principles that would inform their legislative agendas.

The workers of this country should demand better representation from the labour parties or seek an alternative to what is on offer. Verbum sat sapienti (Latin for “a word to the wise is enough”).

• Caswell Franklyn is a trade unionist and social commentator.

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