Progress since Copenhagen

Strategies for Reducing Unemployment


Presenter: Mr. George DePeana, Caribbean Congress of Labour, Barbados
Respondent: Mr. Simeon Robinson, Association of Development Agencies, Jamaica

     Mr. DePeana highlighted that since Copenhagen the situation as regards to rates and standards of employment has got worse. He drew attention to commitment 3 of the Copenhagen consensus, which states “Putting employment generation at the center of government policies especially to combat unemployment and underemployment among women, young people, people with disabilities and disadvantage groups”.

     He pointed out that Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago have both seen a decline in unemployment, whilst in rest of the region rates have increased. He stated that globalization, trade liberalization and privatization have all conspired to the detriment of many workers in the region as the Caribbean industrial and services sectors had to compete in a more hostile environment. He said that this has not been matched with effective or appropriate training and retraining of the Caribbean work force to cope with the changes.

     He stated that there was also a major problem in the region as regards to the issue of underemployment. Mr. DePeana noted that unemployment figures could be as much as 30% in some countries. This he said was exacerbated by the absence of programmes in the region to mitigate the worst effects of unemployment. He said that with the exception of Barbados no other Caribbean country has put in place an unemployment relief scheme. He indicated however that even in Barbados this programme has had to be rolled back in response to great pressure due to the rise in unemployment in the mid-nineties.

     He indicated that such programmes were needed now more than ever since several major industries are being affected by international trade regulations that are causing businesses to release workers. This he said was evident in relation to bananas, but not limited to this industry.

     He stated that another area that has been causing increases in unemployment was in the changing standards of employment in the region. In this regard, he pointed to the escalation of contract work particularly in low-income jobs. He said this was in addition to such contract employment which does not guarantee full time employment and has been the “out sourcing” of work to firms which provide temporary employees.

     He said that another feature of impact on rates of employment in the Caribbean was that of self-employment. Mr. DePeana indicated that because of the negative impact of structural adjustment which caused increased unemployment in the region, many Caribbean people have been forced to find alternative sources of employment. He said that this meant that many had to resort to developing small businesses in the non-traded and non-traditional sectors. These included cottage industries and micro-retailing where risks were relatively small and the return reasonable.

     He noted however that even in these areas regional governments have not been very supportive of persons engaged in these areas of activities. Instead a number of governments have sought to increase the level of regulation and control over these activities. One worrisome aspect he identified with this type of activity is the unstable and unpredictable nature of the business which he said was matched by the lack of security and protection of the future of persons engaged in these activities.

     Mr. DePeana argued that all of these features were providing for a changing work environment and indeed the relationship between capital and labour. Most of all, he argued that employment could not be seen in traditional terms any longer, but rather as a function of the realignment of priorities in socio-economic and political policies. He said that while in many countries the rate of unemployment might have abated and even decreased it has not necessarily meant better conditions of work or living for workers.

     To further illustrate his point he made reference to the emergence of a disregard for the well-being and importance of workers in the commercial and productive process. He said that in many countries in the region there have been moves by several non-Caribbean investors to deny workers fundamental rights and privileges to which they have become accustomed. Mr. De Peana pointed to the disputes in Barbados and St. Vincent and other places, between foreign investors and local labour unions over the right of workers to join institutions of their choosing.

     He said that this has been a particularly dangerous trend in the region that has not attracted sufficient attention from regional governments; despite the fact these actions are contrary to several ILO Conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining.

     He pointed out the very poor conditions of service that workers have been faced with, particularly that of a lack of minimum wage legislation. This he said has severely hampered the growth of incomes in the region, and by extension the reduction of poverty. He said that there also needed to be a concerted effort by regional governments to undertake and update labour legislation reform to properly protect workers in this very hostile international economic and social environment.

     In terms of future employment strategies Mr. DePeana argued that greater attention had to be paid to areas such as agriculture, and technical applications. In this respect he said that it was his belief that much of the future employment in these areas must however be on the side of ownership and access to resources by the workers of the region. Governments must be bold enough to provide the facilities necessary to encourage Caribbean people to own their own business.

     He concluded by addressing the need to examine the issue of decent work. He said that while this issue has not been major in the Caribbean it is one that is likely to emerge in the future as investors become more aggressive in their quest for cheap labour.

     He also concluded that for all of this to succeed the region must be prepared to train and retrain its work forces with a view to developing multi-skilled workers capable of fitting into a new and very competitive working environment.

Respondent:

     Mr. Robinson began his brief response by asking delegates to focus on the role of the State in the employment equation. He said that for some time the State has been seen as the principal provider of employment. This has changed radically in the past decades with the emergence of a neo-liberal agenda which placed this burden of employment creation with the private sector – the so-called engine of the economy. Mr. Robinson argued that a major part of the problem has been that the private sector has not been able to provide the kinds of economic growth necessary for meaningful job creation.

     In this regard, he said that he felt that there was still a role for government in the process of employment generation, though he was confident that this could be done anytime soon. Using Jamaica as an example he said that in 1999 the government spent more money in debt service than it spent on capital or social development expenditure. He said that if any progress is to be made in creating successful employment strategies then government had to re-intervene in the job creating market: not necessarily as a personal provider of employment but in providing the appropriate mechanisms for job creation.

     He highlighted the need for an increased spending in areas such as education, and retraining as critical to this overall strategy: in areas such as information technologies and micro-business enterprises which are the new areas that will provide the employment opportunities. He said that they would not be able to fully utilize them if the State does not provide leadership in these areas.

     He agreed with Mr. DePeana that a need for labour legislation reform was critical, but disagreed that this had to be done in a manner to accommodate the new economic thinking. He said that like the presenter he was sure that much of this reform would have to be to protect the interests of workers and the gains that they have made over the years.

     He also agreed with the view that more attention had to be placed on educating the work force. In this regard Mr. Robinson argued that the issue was not only about increased expenditure on education, but also about how well those resources were targeted. He called for more training on higher education in technical and vocational disciplines to better equip workers of the region to participate in the newly emerging economy.