File Photo: OWTU members march along Lord Street, San Fernando. (Image: RISHI RAGOONATH)

For yet another year, the labour movement in T&T will be required, as a result of the global pandemic, to have a much more reserved commemoration of Labour Day.

Notwithstanding the many challenges already facing the movement, the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt forced labour into uncharted territory.

With the advocates of the “new normal” predicting a paradigm shift, it is left to workers and their organisations to ensure that they are better off in the new dispensation.

The question, though, is how will this happen?

Workers will now look to their leaders to provide the answers.

It is unfortunate that 84 years later, the events which would occur between June 19 and July 5 1937, have been reduced to an obscure holiday.

It is unlikely that Corporal Charlie King could have contemplated the sequence of events which would have been triggered by his ill-conceived attempt to serve a warrant on Tubal Uriah Butler who was, at the time, addressing a crowd of aggrieved workers in Fyzabad.

However, unlike Corporal King, who would not have had the benefit of hindsight, we have no excuse for not knowing.

Knowing is key. Understanding the nature of the changing environment is vital in shaping and adapting to change. This is the first role of the movement.

It is their responsibility first and foremost to ensure that the population is made aware of the significance of the impact of the 1930s, the very thing being commemorated.

It can be a lobby for curriculum change or an independent programme which Labour runs.

The key is too ensure that persons understand the period of colonialism not just in terms of what was done to us but also what we did and what we achieved in that period.

In other words, the movement has to show a tradition and a capacity to create its own roadmap for “the new normal.”

The pandemic has presented the world with challenges which are unprecedented. Everyone is called upon to adapt in the current circumstance as indeed it is a literal question of survival. The irony for many workers is that some of the measures intended to safeguard their lives have put their livelihoods at risk.

Even more than this, as businesses adapted there was a move to implement conditions of work which they have argued against, ad nauseum, for one reason or another.

The reference here is to measures such as work from home, digitalisation of operations and flexi hours.

Furthermore, as governments across the globe have made various interventions to curb the spread of the virus, it is clear that workers are being negatively impacted, and disproportionately so.

Even as this new paradigm is contemplated there is a need to be guided by basic principles, at the heart of which must be protection of workers’ rights, whether they are unionised or non-unionised; employed or unemployed.

In addition, there must be an equally important discussion on the right to work. This is more than a discussion on livelihoods. This is a discussion about how we conceive of and contextualise productivity. The national discussion on productivity tends to focus narrowly on one’s contribution to the generation of national wealth purely in economic terms and ignores those whose contribution has not been quantified or is to the development of the human condition.

It is lost on many that our care and creative sectors have been shut down for over a year.

For those who are prepared to be honest, the inequity within our society has been laid bare before us in way which is raw and unavoidable. One has only to look at the number of persons who needed to apply for relief grants after only one month of no income. There are many who spin this and argue a case for financial literacy, but this is disingenuous. Many of our citizens are underemployed and are paid well below what can be called a living wage. Financial management cannot be applied to resources that simply do not exist.

What passes as analysis when we discuss the question of exploitation in our society is amazing and disheartening. Worse yet is our value set which has embraced exploitation as the price you pay for not being educated enough or not being ambitious enough. These are views, which ironically are not only articulated by employers but also by employees. Workers who, because they are “skilled” hold themselves above the mass of the working class. Virtue is equal to the amount of money in your bank account.

This is one of the lessons which Dr Williams leaves us with in his seminal work, Capitalism and Slavery.

The English had great difficulty with his challenge to their morality narrative as the reason for the abolition of slavery. The danger of the economic rationale was that the exploitation of workers, such that they could be reduced to a thing, existed not in some moral deficiency of a greedy few but rather it was at the heart of an economic system which in large part remains unchecked up to today.

Dr Williams tells us that “the harsh treatment of the underprivileged classes. (…), and the indifference with which the rising capitalist class was beginning to reckon prosperity in terms of pounds sterling” was an indication that they were “becoming used to the idea of sacrificing human life to the deity of increased production.”

The trade union movement must see its role as very different in this moment. The confinement to negotiating collective agreements and being preoccupied with industrial relations issues will limit their effectiveness in the upcoming months and years as the world emerges from the pandemic.

It is critical to ground the work to be done in an ideology which serves the interest of its charges. The work must now be forward-facing and developmental in nature, driven by data and policy. The movement must find its voice and indeed its place as a stakeholder in the shape and form that the post-pandemic Caribbean would take.

There are those who believe the trade unions are obsolete and have no role and no future, when perhaps, they have never been more important. The movement must anticipate the challenges which will be presented upon return to work and prepare alternative policy positions for interventions. The new normal must leave the old exploitation behind.