Sat | Jul 11, 2020

Millennials shunning unions – labour leaders

Published:Sunday | December 29, 2019 | 12:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris - Staff Reporter
Davis Whyte

Young workers especially have been shunning the trade union movement and have contributed to just about 30 per cent of employees currently being unionised.

This is a matter of concern for president of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, Helene Davis Whyte, who noted that millennials are yet to fully grasp the benefits of collective bargaining.

“Part of the difficulty that we have is that the trade union is really a communal organisation and you find that a lot of young people are more individualistic and, in that context, you have to be able to tell them what is the benefit of community,” said Davis Whyte, who recalls being very active in the movement as a young worker.


“You have to actually be re-educating and getting people to recognise that their strength is in their numbers and in them actually uniting. Each one out there on his or her own is far more unlikely to change anything than if they all decide to come together, and that is what young workers have not actually taken account of at this point in time,” she said.

Rhonda Pryce, a co-chair of the Young Workers Committee, which falls under the Jamaica Civil Service Association, agrees with Davis Whyte.

“We have a challenge in attracting members to join the trade union because it is not that they are not working, but they don’t see the relevance because they don’t know the genesis of trade unionism,” Pryce admitted.

She believes trade unionism should be a part of the curriculum in schools so that the younger generation can learn about its benefit.

“What a lot of young people don’t understand is that the employment law that they are able to flout in their organisation now was as a result of trade unionism and the trade union movement,” she said.

“Persons don’t understand that acts such as the Maternity Leave Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Minimum Wage Act, the Factories Act, the Employer Termination and Redundancy Payment Act, all of these saw their genesis through trade unionism and they are able to benefit from these legacies currently,” she noted.

The committee is currently in the process of charting a new course in its quest to ramp up membership. One of the impending changes is to transition from being just a committee to a movement.

“It will focus directly on young workers and the issues that surround young workers. Young workers need to understand that they are the future and it is the premise that we set now that will affect us 10, 20 years down the line,” said Pryce, who added that the group plans to launch a mentorship programme in schools.

While persons can take their individual case to the Industrial Disputes Tribunal, Pryce said she has come to realise that the process can sometimes be lengthy and time-consuming.

Ministry labelled slow to act on workers’ issues

While disgruntled employees can bring their issues to the attention of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, veteran trade unionist Senator Lambert Brown says he is not too happy with the pace at which it has been responding to complaints from some workers.

“I know that there are cases where people have been waiting for a long time to get redress from the Ministry of Labour. I know of a case involving a manager who was dismissed last year and has been waiting for an answer for several months now from the ministry. The last meeting was in June,” Brown said.

“I know of another case where the ministry is waiting for the Attorney General’s Office for over a year to give them advice.”

James Stewart*, 25, got the shock of his life earlier this year when he called the Ministry of Labour to lodge a complaint about a former employee and was advised that it made no sense to pursue the matter. Stewart was employed to one of the country’s business process outsourcing (BPO) centres, and had issues regarding his salary while at the organisation.

“I spoke to someone who got me on to a consultant at the Ministry of Labour,” he said.

“He (consultant) said that since there are so many jobs like that, just go ahead and get another one and forget about them,” he recounted.


Stewart had worked at several call centres over the last few years, but he said that he was generally relieved of his job during the three-month probationary period for one reason or another. Frustrated by the fact that workers seem to have very little recourse in the industry once they do not make it past three months, he has been hoping to find employment in another field.

Davis Whyte finds that the BPO sector does not generally encourage unionisation, but she said they are subject to the laws of the land.

“They employ a lot of persons, and the information that we have is that they don’t encourage union representation, although I don’t think that any union has tried to go in there in a concerted kind of way because you are not getting persons coming to you saying that they want to be unionised. Because the environment there is such that they don’t encourage unionisation, it means that you would have to be organising the workers almost surreptitiously, and that becomes very difficult because of the kind of shifts and so on that they generally work,” she said.

Davis Whyte finds that fear is one of the factors that would curtail efforts to join a union, especially since persons would want to make it past the three-month probationary period.

“That is not something that is peculiar to the BPO industry either, but from the information that we have, the BPO industry now operates in a similar fashion, as did the factories in the garment freezones when they just opened up in the 1980s and, I think, as a result, workers might be fearful,” she said, while adding that the same is true for security guards.

The propensity towards contract labour, she finds, has been another factor contributing to far fewer persons joining unions, although she noted that some unions have been able to achieve growth despite the current labour culture.

She remains optimistic, however, as the Government has signed off on the International Labour Organisation’s Decent Work Agenda, which places them in a position to ensure that at least the basic minimum standards for workers are being maintained.

*Name changed