Improving the industrial relations climate Editorial
Guyana Chronicle
September 15, 2003

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

Mr. George De Peana's observation - that trade unionists and labour administrators are moving too slowly or else not at all in quelling workplace woes - hardly needs reemphasizing. It does deserve immediate evaluation, however, to determine how management and union can compromise to reverse the adverse effects of worker discontent on skills mobilization and product quality.

With technology and skilled labour increasingly dictating levels of output and even consumption patterns, productivity and supply impinge on how well employees perform and how well employers treat their workers.

Yet industrial relations personnel continually argue over management and worker discontent.

Union and company readily acknowledge that worker dissatisfaction creates what a study in the 1970s said are "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.

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 operation with modern machinery.

Trade unions, for their part, attribute their skepticism to the lack of any comprehensive plan by management that sets out a convincing case for utilizing more highly skilled workers to maximize productivity and output, product/service delivery and market share.

Trade unions disagree that worker redundancy is the best option, or even one of the options, for cutting production costs; corporate heads argue that having a bloated, semi-skilled workforce in a machine-intensive setting places unnecessary financial burdens on a company; robs highly-skilled, highly-productive workers of deserving remuneration and acts as a disincentive for patronized employees to improve their education and job capabilities.

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.

But this being the order, where then are union and employer to settle on firm ground uncluttered by myth and exaggeration?

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, why countries once dependent on "smokestack" industries are now blazing the global competitive trail with top-quality products from industries based on new technologies.

One of the possibilities for improving the industrial relations climate that emerged from the just-concluded labour administration conference here was for trade union and management to forge some sort of partnership.

It's an option worth exploring.

According to the New York-based Labor Research Association, business leaders in recent years have been pushing hard to promote labour-management committees as a way to promote cooperation and teamwork.

In a report published in the U.K. in January 2002 by the independent Institute for Employment Studies, author Peter Reilly described union-management partnership as "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."

Labour administrators, trade union leaders and corporate heads would do well to get hold of this report and talk together about how they can make such an initiative work for Guyana's good.

For we believe our labour administrators are matured beings who want to see Guyana's industrial relations climate improve to unprecedented levels - without, of course, bargaining agents being reduced to sham unions in which workers have no real voice.