Labour’s Changing Agenda

…Waiting for New Politics

By Sunity Maharaj

This is no easy world for workers. Once upon a time, many did not own even their own labour. Eventually worker rebellions opened the way for trade unions to enter and negotiate the terms and conditions under which labour could be used in producing goods and services owned by others pursuing the creation of wealth.
Today, yet another tectonic shift is underway as we progress from the age of owning our labour to owning our minds. We may rent it out to others, but ultimately, it is ours to own and to use as we wish, in the creation of goods and services for whichever buyers we choose. The mass conversion of imagination into a source of personal wealth is the basis of the creative and knowledge economy. This is a radical departure from the industrial economy and comes with major implications for the organization of society, the design of communities and the structuring of political systems.
The fundamental nature of the change taking place deserves priority in the national discussion even as sectoral interests continue to lock horns over seasonal issues of salaries, wages, terms and conditions.
While that discussion dominates the national dialogue, all around us we can see evidence of the changing nature of the labour environment, with migration from the traditional labour force into the knowledge economy which, if you think about it, has the feel of a discrete Economy of One.
In a world where large numbers of workers are becoming their own corporation sole as owner/employer/labour, the issue of representation changes. What are the implications for the individual and for trade unions? Is there an evolving role that converts the long experience and acquired expertise of trade unions into a new and additional form of representation appropriate to the changing order? Are workers migrating into the differently-structured knowledge economy to be denied the benefits of representation?
As in the politics, so in the economy. There is a growing middle ground between the traditional workforce and the employer, public and private. This space is occupied by a growing community of working entrepreneurs who have equally urgent need for representation of all kinds. The evolving shape of the landscape is urging new responses from trade unions and policymakers. For trade unions, it presents an opportunity for re-thinking the very concept of representation as well as the shape and role of trade unions as an interface between the individual and the structures of power.
While the need for mass representation remains urgent now and might endure into the future to one extent or another, new needs are beginning to surface. It would be a mistake for the trade union movement to view the change purely in terms of attrition of its base instead of transformation of the base which, in turn, requires a transformation of trade union identity and activity.
Already, a number of forces are compelling the change: technology, the changing role of women which has changed the structure of the family and society; changing markets; expanding opportunities for products of the mind; monetization along the value chain of intellectual capital, and so on.
The national community, and the trade union movement, in particular, have to embrace these issues even as we grapple with the dire consequences of a changing global order of joblessness and jobless growth.
The picture emerging from the recently-released International Labour Organisation’s Global Trends Report 2012 brings the challenge squarely into focus in noting that one out of every three workers around the world can be classified as either unemployed or poor.
This reality,says ILO Director-General Juan Somavia, requires us to make job creation in the real economy our number one priority.
The picture is not pretty. Two years into the recovery from the global meltdown of 2008, there remains an estimated 27 million more unemployed workers than might have been expected at the start of the crisis. “The fact that economies are not generating enough employment is reflected in the employment-to-population ratio …which suffered the largest decline on record between 2007 (61.2 per cent) and 2010 (60.2 per cent),” said the report.
As expected, Latin America and East Asia buck this trend with job creation rates above growth levels in the labour market because of the growth of their economies.
The outlook is particularly stark for young people entering the job market. Unemployment in the 15-24 age group is on the rise at a time when the ILO says “globally, young people are nearly three times as likely as adults to be unemployed.”
Other key findings of the report are a slowdown in the rate of progress in reducing the number of working poor with nearly one-third of the world’s people working for less than US$2 with half the women with jobs falling into the category of “vulnerable employment”.
There is no reason for this to be the job narrative of Trinidad and Tobago. This is a country with resources, markets, relatively high per capital income and a reasonable level of savings. In short, we have all the material elements for negotiating the choppy waters of socio-economic change on a global scale.
What we do not have is the level of political and social cohesion for addressing our problem with united purpose. Without this, the problem is going to get worse. The huge investment in tertiary education is bringing thousands of young people into the job market each year, all of whom arrive with high hopes for well-salaried jobs because that was our promise to them when we expanded GATE to let them in. In addition, we should expect a new category of job-seekers among returning nationals who have either lost their jobs abroad or cannot find one. Many will return with families who will add new demands on social services.
Are we ready for the explosion that could come from high youth dissatisfaction? We should remember 1970. Not only are we bringing people into the job market without creating new jobs, but invariably, they are arriving without the competencies for the jobs that exist and, where there are no jobs, they are graduating without the capacity and support for creating income in response to new market opportunities.

We are in a moment of genuine transition. As we face the challenges of a changing world, we urgently need a common platform to be struck by all the key interests that dwell in this country.. This is not a time for confrontation but for conversation. But no one should expect the labour movement to just roll over. Having brought labour yet again to the table, the politics needs to create real space for negotiating a concordat between competing interests. This, after all, was what the People’s Partnership promised when it rallied the labour movement and brought the Movement for Social Justice into Government.
The stakes for our future are simply too high for us to resort to the divisive politics of old. All parties need to review their kneejerk assumptions about each other in recognizing the validity of each interest. In this, the government’s only role is to keep its eye on the ball of the future and not position itself as a rival interest. To rise to this level, the competing interests that reside within the People’s Partnership must negotiate a consensus at the political level, not within the cabinet.
It will be a travesty of gigantic proportions if the current discussion among the leaders of the People’s Partnership turns out to be yet another exercise in mamaguy. History is waiting to see which leader is up to the challenge of our times.

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