In last week’s essay, I adverted to the phenomenon of the seemingly inviolable attachment that the majority of Barbadians have to the practice of infliction of corporal punishment on children.
So much so that they are prepared to dishonour solemnly ratified convention and to flout the state’s international obligations, [oddly enough in the name of sovereignty]; to set at naught scientific findings by reputable organisations that corporal punishment might lead to an increased risk for physical abuse, a mind-set that aggression is an acceptable mode of problem solving and a decreased learning capacity; and seriously to consider that those jurisdictions who have been, in their view, “ig’runt” enough to abolish the infliction of pain upon children in order to instil discipline, are hopelessly misguided, if not ungodly, and much the poorer for it.
Hence in our quaint pharisaic way, we can boast of our good fortune at having been flogged as children and having flogged our children and that we Barbadians alone know what is best for our island home. It would seem that it has ever been thus.
I recall reading, many years ago, two passages in the brilliant monograph, “Labour in the West Indies: The Birth of a Workers’ Movement” by W. Arthur Lewis (as he then was) that evince a similar attitude. First, the author recounts an extract from the late 1930s Moyne Commission hearings in Barbados when a member of the Commission observed that he found it “rather extraordinary that we did not have a Workmen’s Compensation Act in an island like this…” The reply from one aptly titled gentleman on behalf of the Barbados Sugar Producers’ Association was, “…so far as an island like this is concerned, the urgency for it is very much less than in neighbouring countries. There is no frequency of accidents (sic) and in most cases the employer looks after the people. The urgency is not extraordinarily great in my opinion. At the same time, it will put people out of employment…”
Second, in response to a suggestion from the Commission that the Secretary of State for the Colonies would indeed regard the matter as one of urgency, the same gentleman pointedly asserted, “ He doesn’t know local conditions as we do…”
This penchant for not interrogating the status quo, whether or not it is of our own creation, may be located in other areas of our existence similarly. We seem to have adopted some eldritch Panglossian stance that “all is for the best in Barbados which is, itself, the best of all possible worlds” and, in spite of cogent evidence to the contrary, we are prepared to discount the solutions adopted by others, based on the anecdotal view that we should and do know better than anyone else what is best for us, and it is not what they have done.
I was further reminded of this quirk last week when the on-going industrial dispute erupted at the Apes Hill Golf Resort. Ostensibly, the dispute bears relation solely to the issue of recognition of the Barbados Workers’ Union [BWU] as the certified bargaining agent for the workers, although the acerbity of certain remarks by one of the principals for the employers and more than an undercurrent of hostility in the entire matter give reason for some doubt as to whether this is indeed the real bone of contention. Not, given the way these things eventually unravel, that we may ever know for certain, but I am prepared to assume for now that the issue is one of recognition only.
And my central point is that in an era when we dare to boast of high literacy among our people; when many of our regional neighbours have enacted legislation providing for the compulsory recognition of a workers’ organisation after a transparent process; and when relevant information is available at the click of a mouse, we should be loath to remain content to base a such a significant collective right of the workers on a principle as “legally dubious” as custom-and-practice.
Now let me be clear. I am not saying that custom-and-practice does not have its place in a legal system. Of course it does. However, its validity in that context is subject to certain prescribed criteria; that it must be of long-established vintage, reasonable, certain and notorious. I do not care to offer an opinion here as to whether the right to recognition claimed by the BWU in this case satisfies these criteria, but I submit generally that the number of disputes in this area would be substantially reduced were there to be legislation enacted providing unequivocally for the process to be observed by both parties if the union is to gain compulsory recognition.
There already exists CARICOM Model Legislation on the matter, and there is relevant statutory provision in Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica and, of course, Trinidad & Tobago for examples, should we wish to draw on these experiences. Even if we might agree with the local witness before the Moyne Commission, referred to above, that “our urgency [for such an Act] is much less”, that they “do not know local conditions as we do”, that there is “no frequency of disputes”, that “in most cases the employer takes care of the people”, and that a similar enactment “will put people out of work”, we must still ask ourselves whether the local industrial relations climate would not be better served by the certainty of prescribed procedure than by the occasional acrimony wrought by contested custom.
What is even “curiouser” is that identical draft legislation has been in local circulation since 1995 without more.
Lord, put a hand!