Improving the labour relations climate
Guyana Chronicle
September 13, 2003

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Caribbean labour administrators concluded a four-day conference here yesterday, with the general secretary of the Caribbean Congress of Labour, George DePeana, warning against procrastination in decision implementation.

Mr. DePeana's observation that moving too slowly or else not at all in addressing workplace woes will be the folly of the Caribbean that hardly needs reemphasizing.

With technology increasingly determining levels of output, standards and even consumption patterns, productivity and supply impinge on how well employees perform and how humanely employers treat their employees.

Yet employers and trade unions continually argue over management and worker discontent.

Both sides readily acknowledge that the discontent of workers is creating what a study in the 1970s described as "low productivity, increasing absenteeism, high turnover rates, sickouts, wildcat strikes, industrial sabotage, poor-quality products and a reluctance by workers to give themselves to their tasks."

Both sides also agree that some employees DO want to improve their skills and have those skills fully utilized on their jobs; that they DO want to feel a sense of accomplishment after a day's work.

But that's where the agreement ends.

Where, then, are union and employer to settle on firm ground uncluttered by myth and exaggeration?

Some employers say that income levels apart, management-union disputes generally revolve around the refusal of unions to accept that a company seeking to compete on the international market has to evolve from a labour-intensive to a high-tech machine intensive operation.

The same goes for institutions such as the civil service, where the goal is to cut production costs and simultaneously utilize fewer, more highly skilled workers to maximize output, product quality or service delivery, and market share.

One of the possibilities for compromise emerging from the just-concluded labour administration conference here was for trade union and management to forge partnerships.

Given the range of complexities that make identifying sources of worker discontent and management-union disputes difficult, we suggest that labour administrators study, in greater depth perhaps, why countries once dependent on "smokestack" industries are now blazing the global competitive trail with top-quality products from industries based on new technologies.

Minimizing production costs is a major operational strategy by any employer striving to get or maintain a competitive edge in the global marketplace.

But workforce downsizing need not be a criterion for company survival if trade unions encourage their member workers to acquire the skills that employers desire in order to successfully transform their manufacturing base in the face of increasing international competition.

Many managers and union reps appear to think that constant fighting is a permanent condition of a unionized workplace. Such an attitude is both unfortunate and debilitating.

We believe that employers and trade union leaders are matured beings who want to see Guyana's labour relations climate improve and who therefore should substitute partnerships for partisan interests and face commercial pressures and employees' desires together. In a report published in the U.K. early last year by the independent Institute for Employment Studies, author Peter Reilly says: "Partnership is a sophisticated form of employee relations that requires mature management and employee representation, but it is more likely to bring economic and organizational success than its alternatives."

The report, Partnership Under Pressure: How Does It Survive? reviews with a case study approach how well management-union partnership is progressing and how robust it is in changing times.

Our labour leaders, employer organizations and corporate heads should get hold of this report to talk together about how they can make such an initiative work for Guyana's good.