Workers are too important to be threatened and insulted

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Larry Vaughan is a public servant in St Kitts and Nevis. He has served as public relations officer and trade relations officer at the Customs and Excise Department. He is a public sector administrator and trade unionist.

By Larry Vaughan

The COVID-19 crisis has opened the eyes of our minds to the recognition that our society needs to closely examine the present and emerging circumstances and to determine how sustainable and progressive we truly are about the policy actions we decide to adopt. The adequate use of technology to speed up our access to goods and services or the changes in policies to ensure that our economy emerges with true resilience following the pandemic are only two ways that small island developing states, like St Kitts and Nevis, can ready itself from the still approaching new normal.

Between March 2020 and the present, people across the globe have been confronted by the economic and social challenges that are associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments and leaders in the private sector and civil society have reviewed the situations in which they find themselves. Sluggish economies, increased social safety needs and possible fallouts seem to be the order of the day. Everyone is seeking answers.

Governments have found their answers in the development of stimulus packages. Like John Maynard Keynes, our people advocate for increased government expenditures and lower taxes to stimulate demand and pull the economy out of depressions, such as we face today. We seek state interventions through policies that mitigate our challenges and get the people back out and working.

Employers have found answers in lobbying the government. It is often said that the squeaky cog gets the grease. Such it is with businesses that speak up and speak out. These business leaders, through an association of employers, speak with one voice to raise concerns and seek solutions.

However, there is yet another group in our society. The people in this group are the ones who pay all the taxes that governments collect, be they direct or indirect. These people are the principal producers and consumers of the goods and services produced in an economy. These are our workers.

Oftentimes, governments and employers sit at the table of development to discuss plans, programmes and strategies that are intended to move forward but too many times the workers are left out of the discussion. It is as if government and business leaders are not mindful that workers face economic and social issues. There is an understanding that workers are not capable of articulating their interests, concerns and desires.

The unwillingness to include workers in discussion on issues of national significance suggests that we have not recognised that business failures do not only have macroeconomic implications for the state and entrepreneurial consequences for business owners. They also mean job losses which impose significant social and economic challenges on the ability of the people to provide for themselves and their families.

As such, there is always a need for government to consult with the people whenever the state embarks on making policy decisions. Consult, here, does not mean that a decision is to be made, then it is to be told to the people. Consultation does not mean that the state should say what it intends to do and then proceed unabated. Consultation demands that representatives of the state, employers and workers meet to discuss matters of national significance to arrive at policy positions that reflect a coherent and coordinated consensus.

When one listens to the words of prime minister Timothy Harris of St Kitts and Nevis uttered Wednesday, April 7, 2021, we did not hear that the public policy directorate was seeking to enter into consultation with the people on the vaccine roll-out.

We heard prime minister Harris say: “We (the government) need every employer not just to say, but to insist that every employee must be vaccinated. This is where it is going to come. For the protection of your business, for the protection of the peace and the health of those who are vaccinated… employers, including the government, will have to give consideration to that.”

Nowhere in this comment or proclamation of the pursuit of a policy; of mandatory vaccination for workers was there any hope that the government of St Kitts and Nevis is prepared to sit at the table of brotherhood to concord and negotiate a policy of national significance in the pursuit of national maximum immunisation.

Is it because the World Health Organisation (WHO) did not stipulate this? It is because donor funds and donor doses did not come with this stipulation?

When one reads the missives put out to staff by local businesses in St Kitts and Nevis, one sees that businesses are prepared to force their will on workers without care for the concerns that have caused their vaccine hesitancy. The diction, mood and tenor of the various letters range from insulting, intimidating and demanding. Rather than sit at the table with workers as equal partners in the national discussion on the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, workers are approached as underlings and subordinates in the business environment who must do what the Lords and Masters (government and bosses) dictate.

In my recent walk-about-town, many have asked me, what does the International Labour Organisation (ILO) say about mandating the vaccines to workers? What protections do the ILO offer workers?

I must confess that I am unable to speak definitively to the ILO’s position on mandating vaccines. It is not because the ILO is not clear on this issue in its Constitution, its Philadelphia Agreement, and its 190 Conventions along with their protocols and recommendations. However, the ILO has sought at all times to have its member states bound to key principles, that if they are adhered to, St Kitts and Nevis would have approached the vaccine roll-out matter much differently.

The first ILO principle that should guide a national response such as this is the principle of tripartism. This principle says that states engage internally in economic corporatism that is based on tripartite agreements between employers’ organisations, trade unions, and the government of the country. Each participant in the process is expected to act as a social partner to create economic policy through cooperation, consultation, negotiation, and compromise.

St Kitts and Nevis adopted this principle when it established the National Tripartite Committee on Labour Standards in Section 43 of the Protection of Employment Act (Cap. 18.27 of the Laws of Saint Christopher and Nevis). Section 47 of this Act outlines that Committee has the function to advise the government and the minister of labour on all labour matters including (a) the formation and implementation of national policies on basic conditions of employment and the health, environment and safety of workers; (b) the promotion of collective bargaining; (c) proposals for the adoption and amendment of legislation; and (d) review of the operation and enforcement of the Protection of Employment Act.

A cursory look at this legislation and the ILO principle suggests that the prime minister would have spoken out of turn on what policy is to be pursued and that where he has a proposed labour-related policy, regulation or law, this Committee is to meet and consider its implications.

At present, I am a member of the Committee and I have not yet missed a meeting of the Committee since my inclusion as one of the three labour union representatives. The proposal of the mandatory vaccination for workers has not come to the National Tripartite Committee for its consideration and as a member, I await its introduction.

All we have is public loud talk. The rhetoric being heard from the government and business leaders is that not being vaccinated can make the COVID-19 virus a workplace illness. Yet at the same time, the local chamber of industry and commerce and the government have not yet been heard advocating for the ratification of ILO’s Convention 155 on Occupational Safety and Health which would allow for solutions to all forms of work-related threats to the health and safety of workers.

If the primary concern is truly the health of the country and that of the business environment, then there should be an equally loud consideration for the health of the worker at present and going forward. Until we pass the relevant legislation and ratify the ILO Convention 155, we are not yet serious about the health and safety of the worker. And so, there is a need to come to the table of cooperation and concord to discuss this matter before we consider ways to threaten and mandate our way to a COVID-19 safe workplace.

The ILO has called this principle its pillars of Coherence, Coordination and Consensus. When all parties (government, employers and workers) come to sit at the table there is greater consistency between policy statements and the resources that are invested in the delivery of national policies. Already, we have a policy which created a National Tripartite Committee, yet this body is under-recognised as a fundamental tool that the country can use to meet our vaccine roll-out related challenges.

Where there is coherency, there comes a consistent approach to examine the direct relationships between the situation diagnosis, the problem identification, and negotiated planned solutions. Ultimately, this would have shown signs of being a matured society where we have produced an emergent policy through which there was consensus – the product of consultations between the state, the employers and workers.

If these two principles of tripartism and occupational health and safety were being pursued in St Kitts and Nevis, there would be less distrust by workers in the roll-out of the vaccine. There may also be a need to vaccine fewer individuals. We will be able to recognise that there are areas where the state needs to adopt strengthened occupational safety and health measures, legislate adaptive approaches to work including teleworking and e-governance systems, prevent discrimination against workers and their exclusion from national decision-making processes and provide adequate healthcare access for all including national health insurance.

Our work as a people is not to blindly bend to the wishes of the international community at the expense of workers. It is not for us to put undue pressure on our people to achieve maximum immunisation status by any means necessary. Rather, there is a need to discuss the issues we face as a country, with all stakeholders. It is only then, we would have begun to show great respect for each other.

This vaccine roll-out situation is merely a manifestation of governance in this country. What’s worse, it shows how we plan to continue to govern when times get better. We seem to be willing to continue to ignore the ordinary man and woman in good times and then make demands when the going gets tough.

The workers are too important to be treated that way. And I say without reservation, if as a worker in this country, I am not considered to be an integral cog in the national socio-economic engine that drives progress, prosperity and a fair share for all, it is better that I do not seek to be vaccinated because all I would have done is to inoculate myself into a future of servitude.

I deserve more respect. All workers deserve respect. And therefore as workers, let us demand the respect we deserve.

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