This country’s major celebration of the labour movement and workers’ rights is still 49 days away and May Day, officially commemorated as International Workers Day, is not a significant occasion on the local calendar.
But the day does not go by completely unnoticed as trade union leaders make use of the opportunity to stage events where the spotlight invariably shifts to the current industrial relations climate.
Such was the case yesterday, on the eve of the global observances, when the Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM) led a march through the streets of San Fernando. It was much like a prelude to June 19, with union leaders delivering their typically fiery addresses, rallying their members to take a stand against policies and actions seen as anti-worker.
But there is much more to May Day than that. Officially adopted as a major commemoration in 1889, the observance grew out of campaign to win an eight-hour workday for all workers and was preceded by wave of strikes and demonstrations in the United States, Europe, and Latin America.
Conditions for workers were brutal in those days–the workday was 12 to 14 hours, and the workweek was six or seven days long.
The workers’ movement that began in the turbulent labour climate of the late 19th century steadily gained momentum in the years that followed, with May Day celebrations taking hold in China in 1920 and India in 1927.
As May Day began to be marked as a world workers’ day in more countries, it sparked a movement the impacted T&T where the depression of the 1930s led to a series of strikes and riots.
There is a strong connection between May Day and June 19, the day that marks the birth of the local labour movement, so today may not be an occasion for a national observance but it still has some social and historical significance for T&T’s workers.
For that reason, this is an opportunity for an honest assessment of the state of labour relations and the workplace, the type of reflection the goes beyond casting blame and instead focuses on an honest search for solutions to the problems affecting workers.
It is time to abandon the current confrontational stance in favour of a conciliatory approach that facilitates dialogue between the three stakeholders in industrial relations, government, trade unions and employers.
The National Tripartite Advisory Council (NTAC), the mechanism rejected by trade unions a few years ago, was the right platform for the meaningful consultations needed to arrive at consensus on the measures needed to arrive at industrial relations harmony.
However, all is not lost. There is still time, as the country seeks a path to recovery from the ravages of COVID-19, for tripartism, dialogue, and co-operation. It is time for the NTAC to be fully reconstituted.
That is more important now than ever before. The pandemic has radically changed the face of labour and it cannot be business as usual as this nation confronts economic uncertainty and strained labour market conditions.
This May Day, taking place against the backdrop of the continuing pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, sees workers facing challenges that are radically different from those that existed in 1889.
To successfully navigate current difficulties and uncertainties, a more enlightened approach to labour relations is needed.