A strategy of Industrial relations research in Guyana
By Dr Prem Misir
(Based on paper published in TRANSAFRICA FORUM, Rutgers University Consortium)
November 3, 2003
THE development of a strategy for industrial relations research entails an examination of the sub-areas of the discipline. Such a strategy is crucial for Guyana where there is a paucity of behavioral research in industrial relations, and a need to increase production and productivity which are heavily dependent on improved industrial relations. During the ruling People's National Congress (PNC) era, industrial relations problems of the three major industries of sugar, bauxite, and rice, can be discerned.
In sugar, the piece-rate nature of employment, the activities of the PNC's Labor Desk used to undermine the work of the officially-recognized unions, the lack of adequate profit-sharing schemes, and the Ministry of Labor's categorization of all labor disruptions (withdrawals of labor, and strikes) as strikes when they are defined by different conditions of work.
The bauxite industry experienced disguised policies of retrenchment, the wrangle over the new constitution of the Guyana Mine Workers' Union, and the activities of the Alvin Seaford's Desk.
The removal of the elected Rice Producers' Association (RPA) from membership of the Rice Management Board, the unavailability of agricultural spare parts, and the crisis in integrity in the grading procedures, all pointed to serious industrial relations problems in the rice industry.
The repercussions of these deteriorating industrial relations practices in the three primary industries persist today in reconfigured formats.
Perhaps, we can accept industrial relations to mean the regulation of jobs, producing and reproducing relations between workers. The next task, then, in developing a program for industrial relations research is to examine the nature of the work completed in this field. In addition, it is not intended to present an exhaustive list of the Guyana literature, but only to highlight some crucial lines along which such a research evolved.
Guyana's first trade union
The autocracy of colonial management, whether in politics, or in industry, has left an indelible imprint in Guyana. This management style had no formally organized opposition by workers until 1919 when the Guyana Labor Union, the first trade union in Guyana was founded. The only systematic account of the trade union movement, and, indeed, between workers and autocratic management styles, are captured in Chase's work.
Industrial commission reports
There was little systematic research on industrial relations in the period prior to universal adult suffrage in 1953. One document worthy of mention is the Report of the Moyne Commission which was established to inquire into the circumstances of the 1938 riots. This investigation laid the foundation for the Labor Ordinance of 1942. The Persaud Commission was appointed in 1967, three years after intense strikes and race riots, to inquire into all aspects of the sugar industry. Some of its recommendations clearly aimed at dismantling the industry's management autocracy. Some of these included an increase in wages retroactive from November 1, 1966, introduction of a profit-sharing scheme where workers would share about 60% of any profits above 10% before tax on the book value of the assets, reviewing the grievance procedure to avoid delays in settling disputes, and the appointment of assessors to address field disputes. Needless to say, many of these recommendations were not implemented by the PNC Government.
A quasi-commission of inquiry (Pierre, 1969) pertaining to the bauxite industry was set up to examine community attitudes and their effects on industrial relations in the PNC era at a time when wildcat strikes were in abundance. The Commission found that the causes of these strikes were based on a vicious cycle: a social history of industrial feudalism, persisting unofficial strikes as the only way of hitting back at management, and the continuous uncertainty in industrial relations. The Report argued that the cycle can be broken by upgrading basic living standards, and strengthening the trade union.
PNC paramountcy and trade unions
In the PNC years, with about 80% of the economy under governmental control, thereby establishing government as the largest employer, the creation of the public sector minimum wage was realized. In effect, trade unions lost their right to bargain with employers over pay and conditions of work. They were, however, for a short time, allowed to negotiate fringe benefits which came under central control through the Ministry of Labor and the State Planning Commission. The net result of these changes was to bring trade unions into a close partnership with the ruling PNC, perhaps, intending ultimately to make the unions and the PNC one and the same body. The idea was to use PNC paramountcy to control the workings of the unions.
The trade union as a department of the corporation
Parris (1973) advocated for the dependence of the trade union on management by his suggestion that workers should not pay subscriptions from their wage packets, but that such union incomes be derived from a union budget, decided upon by management based on the corporation's finances. Such a development, if became a reality, would have marked the end of free trade unionism, for trade unions would have become a department of the corporation. This approach, too, would have increased the scope of state repression and sustained an autocratic management style on all workers by PNC party functionaries, acting as employers and senior managers.
Lack of trust at the workplace
In a study (Misir, 1993, 1995) of worker participation in the sugar, bauxite, and rice industries during the PNC era, it was found that classical conflict pattern as an industrial relations type described the relations between workers and management at that time. This type suggested that management did not trust the workers and those workers reciprocated with low-trust responses. Some of the findings on industrial unrest in the bauxite industry (Pierre) substantiated the emergence of the classical conflict pattern. These include: foreman-worker relations where workers see the foreman as part of management (the foreman technically holds a "worker" status), foreman-management relations where foremen are forced into behaving in a pro-management way, and an unfair wage and job system.
Impotence of trade unions
One particular theme that dominated these studies in the PNC era is the poor quality of industrial relations and the impotence of trade unions, generally, to play a significant role in the regulation of their members' jobs. The result is two undesirable trends in industrial relations in this era:
Central control of job regulation concerning pay, working conditions, and fringe benefits.
The move to make unions and government inseparable, as amply demonstrated during PNC rule
Without a genuine trade union involvement in negotiations to do with job regulation, the methods used to introduce and enforce such job rules was coercive, due to the PNC's state repression. In this situation, there was no means of social interaction between government and workers. Within this context, workers were not allowed to interpret the meanings of pay/working conditions, so no proper evaluation could have been made. The consequence is that only one type of worker orientation emerged, that is, to accept whatever was given to them. Failure to consider the knowledge of workers in producing and reproducing a procedure for regulating jobs, only served to undermine the norms on which industrial relations practices firmly depend.
Implications for research
Because of a paucity of industrial relations research in Guyana, priority must be given to fact-finding and case-work investigations, in order to develop a massive fund of knowledge, especially in those areas where serious gaps exist. The result is that theoretical conclusions must be deemphasized until an appropriate assortment of information is collected to make a social and behavioral analysis viable.
Areas that require urgent research are to do firstly with the problems relevant to the central control of job regulation and the workers' capacity to produce and reproduce relations between them. Specifically, these could include the level of compliance with the public sector minimum wage, workers' perceptions of their trade unions, the effects of rules on workers' job satisfaction and productivity levels, capacity to change work rules, and their creativity to resist authoritarian supervision. Secondly, examining the attempted fusion between the PNC government and trade unions as the sole producers and reproducers of job regulation is historically useful in learning about the consequences of forced consensus. Thirdly, in the attempt to raise workers' level of social development through workers' participation, what role if any the trade union can play in this process needs to be researched. In many cases, since some trade unions are perceived to be aligned to particular political parties, their part in promoting industrial democracy may have to be carefully observed. Or, maybe the trade union as known traditionally, has become obsolete in a global economy.