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‘Too many young people unaware of union roles’

Published: 
Thursday, June 18, 2015
Clotil Walcott was one of the founders of Nude in 1974. PHOTO: WIKIPEDIA

“I’m surprised at how many contract jobs are now around,” commented Psyche Gonzales about the T&T job scene these days, compared to just a decade ago. 

Psyche Gonzales is 35 and a resident of the Mount Pleasant community in Arima. She obtained an accounting degree some years ago, and lived abroad for 13 years in New York and London, before returning to T&T in 2013. She has been working in administration, and currently volunteers at The National Union of Domestic Employees (Nude). “I grew up with Miss Walcott, with Nude,” she said in an interview with the T&T Guardian on Tuesday. 

Clotil Walcott was one of the outspoken co-founders of Nude some 40 years ago. Her daughter, Ida Le Blanc, today works at Nude as general secretary, and is a strong advocate for women’s rights in the workplace, following in her mother’s footsteps.

Nude began in 1974, at first as a section of the Union of Ship Builders, Ship Repairers and Allied Workers, to represent all low-income workers, including cooks, kitchen helpers, maids, seamstresses, barmen, babysitters, chauffeurs, gardeners, messengers and household assistants. Its current membership includes all kinds of household or domestic workers, with most members being women. 

Psyche Gonzales said she has learned a lot about workers’ issues through volunteering at Nude, which helps people who are arguably most in need of worker protection. In fact, household workers are still not recognised as workers under the T&T Industrial Relations Act, which means that they are denied collective bargaining rights and often have no legal redress for many employment grievances, which can range from unfair dismissals to non-payment of NIS contributions, to actual physical and other abuse by employers. 

Gonzales thinks it is in young people’s interest to learn about unions.

“I was surprised when I came back (to T&T in 2013) at how many contract jobs there are. That wasn’t something that was this big, when I left. It wasn’t something I was familiar with working in the US either, these short-term contracts. 

“So you no longer have job security. If you’re not sure you’re going to have a job next year, or in six months, then it’s tougher for you to fight for things, like helmets or safety gear for warehouse workers. If your contract is coming to an end, you’re not really going to tilt the windmill. So I think it’s important for young people to get familiar with unions, because collective bargaining is powerful, and we need to raise our awareness of it, for all kinds of industries.” 

She said she knows of several On The Job trainees, for instance, who are not only poorly paid, but who get no overtime even though they are (often unfairly) expected to work on weekends and extra hours. 

She notes that few young people here may really know their own history in terms of the part trades unions played, because it’s often not taught. 

“I remember in primary school reading just a little blurb—a paragraph —of something about Uriah Butler in Social Studies. Never again, after that. That was pretty much it, in school (on the whole history of the labour movement). They didn’t talk about it in History. I did Business, Economics—they don’t talk about trades unions or specifically Trinidad’s labour movements. So unless you go to work for WASA, for instance, then yes—the first thing they tell you is to join a union. But if you go to work for Republic Bank, that’s not really the case.” 

“Young people really don’t have that knowledge, that awareness, of what unions can do, unless they hear about issues like backpay, or vacation leave, and the role of unions is more powerful than that,” believes Gonzales. 

“Unions can help the employer, too: they can have a more cohesive unit, they can have a better relationship with their workers,” said Gonzales. She said this was far better than having a relationship of fear between employers and workers, where issues quietly bubble away beneath the surface until they boil over explosively, due to no outlets or communication or no peaceful mechanisms for working things out. 

But unions themselves can do a better job at organising their own business, thinks Gonzales. She gave the example of a relative who is in a T&T union, but who does not feel well represented by them at all, because he often has no idea when union meetings are held. 

“So even where unions exist, educating people in the union does not happen in the way it should,” she says. 

“So although we have activities on Labour Day, programmes by unions and Government should be more consistent in educating younger people,” she thinks. “It’s about mobilising your community.” 

“So you should know that Uriah Butler is more than a highway. That Rienzi is more than a building.”

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