LAST year, employers were tasked with making timely decisions regarding their employees and businesses in an unprecedented crisis. As we have seen during this pandemic, workplace practices and policies have been changing rapidly to adapt to health regulations and guidelines. However, even with the need for immediacy and urgency, an employer’s responsibility and obligation to follow good industrial relations practices were not diminished.
The Covid-19 crisis has already exposed existing weaknesses in our economies and intensified the labour market inequality. Those who are at the bottom of the income distribution and those who are in an insecure labour market position have been hit the hardest.
Her Honour Mrs Deborah Thomas-Felix, president of the Industrial Court of Trinidad and Tobago delivered remarks on February 24, at the first session in a collaborative series with the T&T Chamber. She noted that the use and application of best practices in industrial relations assume even more importance now, since many organisations have undergone significant transformation in the modality of work, with several having accelerated their digital transformation processes and implemented remote work policies. We can expect that some of these transformational changes will alter various aspects of the employment relationship.
In adjusting to the new workplace realities, society must also confront the economic realities facing the country that has been affected by the decline in hydrocarbon prices in recent years as well as reduced production levels. The public sector will continue to face the balancing act of managing expenditure carefully and financing initiatives aimed not only at macroeconomic stability but also at facilitating business activity.
The Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago reported in January 2021 that there was an almost 200 per cent increase in retrenchments for July-November 2020 when compared with the same period in 2019. Some companies have had to reduce wages and or staff complement in order to survive, while others have not survived at all. The short-term outlook for Trinidad and Tobago will be dictated by the evolution of the coronavirus and our rate of vaccinations. Mrs Thomas-Felix underscored the importance of social dialogue when faced with these difficult scenarios, arguing that principles of fairness and equity and the respect for international labour standards in decision-making are relevant.
His Honour Mr Morton Mitchell, judge of the Industrial Court, noted that while employers and practitioners can refer to court judgements and international conventions as many of our industrial relations guidelines are not codified in law, it is social dialogue that will help us find ways forward during the crisis by having tough conversations using tripartite and bipartite approaches to find legitimate and accepted outcomes.
Social dialogue is defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to include all type of negotiation, consultation or simply exchange of information between or among representatives of governments, employers and workers, on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy.
A report entitled “Social Dialogue, Skills and Covid-19” done by the ILO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) points to the importance of involving all social partners in ensuring safe working conditions during the pandemic. Individual workers may be reluctant to voice concerns for fear of losing their jobs, however, social dialogue provides a forum in which workers’ concerns can be expressed and balanced approaches negotiated. Collective bargaining strengthens the bargaining power of low and middle-wage workers and addresses power imbalances that exist in the employment relationship.
The main goal of social dialogue itself, according to the ILO, is to promote consensus-building and democratic involvement among the main stakeholders in the world of work. Successful social dialogue structures and processes have the potential to resolve important economic and social issues, encourage good governance, advance social and industrial peace and stability, and boost economic progress.
For private businesses, the aim is to continue to tap into avenues for boosting performance using more efficient processes, integrating more technology and re-tooling skill sets as the country prepares for more intense global competition in the post-pandemic world. Rebuilding a more resilient world of work after Covid-19 will require strengthened social dialogue, skills development for green and blue economy jobs, digital transformation, greater social protection and sustainable enterprise creation.