I want to start by quoting some comments on the impact of wage increases on the economy.
- High wages wrenched by the trade union movement, led to capital intensive investment since investors preferred to use more machinery rather than pay the high cost of labour
- High wages were jacking up prices for consumers, farmers and businessmen, jacking up costs of production and so making locally produced goods too expensive to compete on the export market. This led to less investment, less exports and therefore less foreign exchange, and greater unemployment.
- High wages were taking too great a share of the National Income at the expense of government revenues and profits for business to reinvest and create more employment.
When do you think these statements were made? Last week? Last month? Last year?
It is actually from 53 years ago! These were excerpts from the 1963 Budget speech.
Those sentiments, however, could have come from discussions in several quarters in 2016.
But, before we come to the present, let’s go even further back to explore some additional sources of this line of thinking.
On 25 July 1842, a House of Commons Committee on the West Indian Colonies identified that “the main cause of reduction in production and consequent distress to the planter… was the high rate of pay.” So, only four years after emancipation, the cry was ‘wages are too high.’
How about one more for good measure.
In 1935, a Wages Advisory board was established. They proposed $3.13 for manual workers and $2.57 for workers in rural areas and Tobago and went onto say in the report; “These figures do not represent the minimum expenditure upon which a man can live. He can live on much less.”
And, as Susan Craigs noted: “To add insult to injury, the advisers complained that (they) were forcibly struck by the marked absence of thrift, expect in occasional instances… or of any sustained attempt to put something by for the rainy day…”
The bottom line is that there is never a ‘right time’ for wage increases as current wages are always fair.
Pick up any newspaper and you will get your parallel for 2016. The belief that a worker’s salary is a matter of what should be offered to them as opposed to what is a just due, has been a part of relationship between employer and employee from the inception of our society.
And there is always the seemingly logical list of arguments as to why increases should be avoided. The contemporaries have pegged the position to a ‘debate’ on productivity without defining what they mean by productivity.
The fall out of this myopia has been that salary cuts and retrenchment have been the go-to economic plan in challenging times.
We ignore the challenges posed by the fundamental structural problems inherent in our economy. These problems are directly linked to failures in investment, high unemployment and underemployment, the impact of external factors on government revenue, failure to adapt to global trading models—online purchasing is a case in point—and poor export performance outside of hydro carbons.
There is little material discussion happening in these areas and, where it is happening, those who can affect the change are not part of the discussions.
Hence, in times of adjustment, it is the working class that is asked to bear the burden with loss of job being the ultimate sacrifice.
This is neither accidental nor incidental. There has always been a push against the organisation of workers. And though a lot of the discussion may surround wages the real debate is about control and power.
Historically it has been the rights and interest of employers which have been enshrined in law, and successive governments did very little to address this inequity. The attitude against trade unionism and the weak legislation which barely protects their members is grounded in old colonial attitudes.
In direct response to the real possibility of organised labour after emancipation, the Combination Ordinance was passed and implemented in every British West Indian territory between 1838 and 1840.
The laws took the view that trade union activity was “injurious to trade and commerce, dangerous to the tranquillity of the country and especially prejudicial to the interest of all who are concerned in them.”
Then, in 1965, the Industrial Stabilisation Act (ISA) was introduced, which in effect was a combination of the Strikes and Lock out and Sedition Ordinances of 1920. It also introduced the legal segregation of workers into essential services placing restrictions on which unions persons could join.
This was in direct response to sugar workers wanting to join the OWTU which would have made George Weekes the president of the two most critical sectors in the country.
The ISA was eventually replaced by the Industrial Relations Act 1972, which today provides little recourse for workers as seen in the case of ArcelorMittal and the many thousands of workers in this country who are exploited every day.
I am not suggesting that there have been no gains by labour or that conditions have not improved generally. But the real advancement of the working class lies in its ability to influence changes to legislation which advance the interest of the class.
George Meany, founding member of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, noted that “American unions are active in politics because they have found that, although the company spy and the professional strike breaker had just about passed from the scene and although unions have certain protections under the law, the employer has decided that the place to curb the union movement is in the legislative field.”
So if you understood my historical connection of the treatment of the workforce in this country, I expressed the view that the attitudes toward compensation for workers have not shifted significantly from the post-emancipation period.
Secondly, I identified pieces of legislation which have been enacted not to protect workers’ rights but to ensure that they were kept ‘in line.’
Thirdly, I am suggesting that, if the legislature is controlled by those who seek only to exploit you, then it stands to reason that the legislation would also be exploitative.
Therefore any fundamental shift which is to occur can only occur when the working class takes an active position, to not only direct the legislature but to become a part of it—and to let “those who labour hold the reigns of power.”