This article was originally published by the Sunday Guardian by a guest author. The article was subsequently republished by the Energy Chamber

In a few years from now, we may look back at events in 2018 as the beginning of a turning point in industrial relations in Trinidad and Tobago.

 After all, this has been the year when the government of the day rose above the mighty and intimidating Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union when it decided to close down Petrotrin, stop its refining business and reopen the rest under a new structure. None of that was small feat.

 And even with the decision by TSTT – another bloated state-owned enterprise - to lay off hundreds of workers, citizens continued to show restraint and a sensible approach to what is going on. By and large, they know that for decades state enterprises and government departments have been poorly managed, overstaffed and unable or unwilling to reject unrealistic and costly union demands.

Something is definitely changing. That is good. But more must be done.

The government and society as a whole must look at 2019 as the year when the pace of change can be increased. After all, we remain uncompetitive and risk falling further behind at a global level if nothing is done.

Our industrial relations framework is outdated, costly and restrictive – not only to business but also to the individual (although our Constitution gives us freedom, under collective bargaining rules currently in place, a worker is denied freedom to represent him or herself at work or to seek justice at the Industrial Court).

And the Industrial Court itself could do with some updating. The first one, as mentioned above, is for it to cease to be an exclusive club for trade unions and to become open to all - employers and employees.

More modern industrial tribunals all over the world are open to all and seek to provide a balanced and fair approach to its judgements. They should never be a one-way street.

A vision of social justice based on the idea that industrial tribunals give preference to the ‘weaker’ workers is not a vision of social justice at all. Proper social justice is delivered through fair employment to all and a set of rules that also apply to all: workers, employers and trade unions.

Modern industrial legal frameworks also allow for appeals by all parties not only on principles of law but also on outcomes in general, including compensation awarded or penalties charged for or against either side.

Ours excessively limit grounds for appeal against the Industrial Court’s judgements, a particularly worrying flaw in our system especially as it can (and does) effectively update the law through its findings without either the democratic mandate of parliament or the ability to have its judgements more easily questioned through a superior court.

In 2018, we also witnessed some of the unions antics in action, some of them clearly aimed at causing disruption and financial losses beyond their remit. Often, they are also cowardly masked under different guises, like the Public Service Association’s calls for ‘days of rest’ – effectively illegal and unreasonable strikes dressed up as other things.

This must end, too, and the government could use 2019 to update (and uphold) the law to stop illegal strikes or actions that cause financial losses to employers and the country as a whole. In some countries, unions are liable to pay damages for tortious claims where they acted unlawfully. In other words, if they act unlawfully and that leads to losses to others, including businesses, they are made to pay compensation.

The year ahead could also be a time of change to our trade unions themselves. Modern and productive economies are built on a strong and fair legal framework designed to protect workers from abuse without punishing employers, when businesses or government departments must change to remain viable.

Equally, these economies also rely on a strong but progressive trade union movement to look after its workers’ interests whilst understanding the competitive nature of the markets and the economic shifts technology bring. In essence, modern and effective unions don’t fight past ghosts, they help build the future of their membership whilst recognising the reality.

They also take on some big and important challenges of our time. Diversity and equality, for instance, should be at the centre of what our trade unions should be fighting for. Instead, our ageing, male-dominated union leadership are disturbingly silent when it comes to equal opportunities, fair treatment and lack of discrimination against women, those with disabilities and LGBT+ people in the workplace.

So, a lot has been achieved but, as we moved into the new year, the momentum cannot be lost, with some urgent action required from all of us, not just the government. Our New Year industrial relations resolutions must include:

  • A review of our labour laws in order to create a fairer, more modern and accessible legal framework, including a reformed Industrial Court

  • The guarantee, in law, that workers are free to negotiate directly with their employers and to take their own cases to the Industrial Court, not through the unions

  • A drive to modernise and improve all trade unions in T&T, with a progressive and open

  • attitude, welcoming of a leadership with more diverse backgrounds and lifestyle

  • Constitutional reform to modernise our public service, including increased flexibility to deal with poor performers

  • New legislation to give the right for businesses (and the government) to seek financial compensation for losses incurred through unlawful actions by labour organisations

  • A meaningful engagement of all parties – employers, government and trade unions – to map T&T’s needs in terms of economic activity, skills and employability for a progressive, inclusive and realistic development plan

The danger of New Year resolutions is that they can be forgotten just a few weeks into January. We cannot afford to make that mistake.

After all, these changes are not just for a more prosperous 2019. They are for a more prosperous Trinidad and Tobago for generations to come.

Happy New Year and let’s make these changes happen.