By Themba Mkhize
The nature of work will never cease to change. As our societies develop, so too will the systems on which we depend for modern life.
As an example, the 40-hour work week is the most recognizable model of work today. The foundation of the 40-hour work week is rooted in ideas promoted by trade unions and popularized by industrialists in the 19th and 20th centuries. This system is often operated within the framework of traditional administrations and bureaucracies, tied to a central, physical workspace from where most work is expected to be conducted.
Increasingly, this model is being challenged. Improvements in technology have been facilitating the expansion of flexible working arrangements. Such arrangements have much potential to create more wholesome systems of work, promoting sustainable values by reducing work-related travel for example, and by so doing, reducing the burning of fossil fuels for transportation. This also allows for reclamation of time which would usually be spent in transit, for personal use. In the context of a pandemic, there is the added benefit of reducing unnecessary physical interactions, among other potential gains.
Whereas trade unions had a central role to play in the shaping of the 9-5 model, their voices do not seem quite as commanding in the developing space of flexible work – especially in today’s Jamaica. Certainly, I do not feel that the role of trade unions comes up for discussion frequently enough in popular discourse as it is crowded out by more disruptive topics which capture the national attention.
The role of a trade union is to protect the interest of the workers (who form its membership) in the workplace, to ensure that the relationship between employee and employer fulfills the needs of the employee as best as possible. Going beyond negotiating compensation packages and representing staff in disciplinary proceedings, the role of trade unions ought to capture the comprehensive protection of workers from all forms of exploitation on the job, as well as securing their safety in the workplace. For me, this means that trade unions sit in a prime position to help reshape dominant characteristics of poor organizational cultures where they exist.
I cannot say empirically that unionized workers in Jamaica feel that their safety is not being secured, but I can say that many workers from a number of organizations have expressed these sentiments in my presence. Many, including myself, feel that there are a number of underutilized flexible working arrangements at the disposal of organizations that are instead defaulting to traditional, in-office work.
The International Labour Organization encourages organizations to adopt consultative approaches in determining work from home protocols, and communicating clearly with staff. When no clear rationale for decision making is presented in matters which affect the health of workers, this can be draining for staff members who believe that their work can be done remotely. This unnecessarily exacerbates animosity between management and general staff who may feel grossly undervalued.
This is where unions ought to, but do not seem to be stepping in to exert their influence, especially because general staff members are at risk of being victimized if they are not in alignment with senior management. If unions are in fact seriously engaging organizations and pushing them towards critical responses regarding 1) which workers actually need to work in office 2) when and 3) how, then this discourse is happening too silently. Workers must feel represented!
There are also demands from disgruntled members of specific professional groups which appear to fly under the radar for many. An example is the case for priority testing of members of the medical fraternity and security forces. This to me is a worthwhile consideration which ought to be examined and advanced by their respective unions. Reducing the risk of workplace spread in such organizations is a matter of national interest as the implications of having a deficient medical or security apparatus has compounding ramifications for public health and citizen safety.
Strategically increasing the use of flexible working arrangements does not mean the absolving of personal responsibility for their health. Unions must engage employers about rolling out and managing remote work reasonably, to reduce the risk of spread. Timetables can be developed to reduce the working population in office at any given time of the day throughout the work week, and approval for the extension of remote work for specific members of staff may be influenced by their demonstrated ability to hand over specific deliverables in a timely manner, or to maintain a certain level of measured productivity. In a world where options are available, the risk of catching COVID-19 when it is not necessary for one to be in in office neither feels justified nor reasonable.
At minimum, there needs to be a more public conversation on this topic, lead by trade unions.
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