Reform and the Workplace

Guyana Chronicle
August 8, 2003

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IN MID-April last year a team of U.S. scientists announced their development of a mercury-ion clock they said was "precise to a single femtosecond" - the smallest unit of time commonly used in science.

The scientists said the clock was about 1,000 times more accurate than the atomic clocks used to keep Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the worldwide time-keeping standard.

Most Guyanese might not have heard anything about UTC or, if they did, not grasped the significance of the new time-keeping device for telephone networks, navigation satellites, and whatever else.

But that's hardly surprising.

We are a people who want the best that life has to offer, yet are not prepared to make that quantum leap into modernization, economic prosperity and individual fulfillment.

Moving ahead is not simply rhetoric. Moving ahead requires higher output - and factors of production that can be depended on to weather the storms of market competition, with measured optimism.

The big question for Guyanese is: are people in positions of leadership who claim they're concerned substitute concern for the public interest, for preoccupation with the pursuit of private interests?

In his essay "Reason, Morality and Politics," A.J.M. Milne points out that while it would be a mistake to describe the perspective of private interests as non-moral or immoral, private interests are "morally defective in comparison with the perspective of the public interest, if only because self-interest precludes giving precedence to the maximum well-being of all - especially if it interferes with the achievement of personal goals."

One example: some trade union leaders crave the good life - modern vehicle, household conveniences, etc. But they vehemently oppose reforms geared to transforming the public sector into a maximum-efficient, service- effective workplace from which the wider community can benefit.

Yet, as a Commonwealth Advisory Group concluded in 1989 after coming here and analyzing Guyana's prospects for progress under the Economic Recovery Programme: "None of the targets of the ERP can be met and none of Guyana's aspirations towards medium- and longer-term development can be approached, unless there is a pronounced and sustained recovery in production."

The trend more or less is for some trade unionists to block government-initiated reforms, grope at output declines, and in the same breath demand wage hikes that a lagging economy is too weak to generate, much less sustain. Then they'll blame the administration for mismanaging the economy and for being insensitive to the demands of workers for a living wage.

It's not that those trade union leaders are oblivious to reality.

For a time in the 1990s, Brazil had been acclaimed for whipping hyperinflation and luring a trove of foreign investments, largely on the strength of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's currency-stabilization reforms.

Then suddenly, in 1997, South America's brawniest economy took a hammering by what economists in Sao Paulo called "the Tyson effect." Brazil began suffering from the same flaws that had spooked investors in Asia - bloated government spending, an oversized civil service and a deteriorating trade account.

Government overspending isn't a problem in Guyana. Generally speaking, service delivery is. But any attempt to relieve a workplace of the burden of unskilled labour incurs the wrath of trade unions. Their perception is always that an employer's motive is to discriminate against or victimize workers, not to optimize service delivery by maximizing human resource efficiency.

Yet, the problems we face are not insurmountable.

For starters, Guyana requires union and political leaders with vision and a spirit of conciliation and compromise. No longer should our leaders fear that by serving the public interest they'll lose their separate identities and cease to exist as a distinctively antagonistic group.

Guyana needs sharp and quick-paced transformation. That can be accomplished if all of us, leaders and followers alike, sacrifice self-interest for the survival and prosperity of the entire nation.

It means that our society's basic values, social and political structure, its arts, and its key structures, must be rearranged and shifted into forward gear.

The worldwide time-keeping standard (UTC, remember?) says that the time to begin shifting forward is now.

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