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Know your rights as workers

Thursday, June 18, 2015
Union officer to young adults:
Kavita Ramlochan, labour relations officer at the All Trinidad General Workers Trade Union.

Kavita Shivana Ramlochan is 22 years old. She is a labour relations officer at the All Trinidad General Workers Trade Union (ATGWTU), and comes from Freeport. Ramlochan, who is currently studying Labour Studies at Cipriani College, thinks trade unions are very relevant to young people because when many embark on new jobs and careers, they may be clueless about their rights as workers: “Many young people are unaware of their employment rights and are faced with many issues without any recourse,” noted Ramlochan.

“As new, inexperienced workers, they are also faced with lower wages, temporary or short-term contracts, discrimination and many other issues.” 

She said joining a trade union is a smart move for young people to access useful help and advice on any work-related issue, and as a learning tool to inform themselves about their basic rights as workers. 

Ramlochan said she first joined a union because it was directly related to her new job in 2011 but that even as she joined it, at first, like many young people, she had little idea of what unions really meant. 

A learning curve

“In 2011, I applied for employment at the On the Job Training Programme Centre to gain work experience while I was doing a business administration degree. Thereafter, I was placed at ATGWTU as an administrative assistant. Admittedly, like many young people, at the time of my interview I knew very little of the purpose of trade unions.” 

But she quickly learned the importance of collective bargaining for workers’ rights, which too many people today take for granted, assuming that these rights have always existed. Our working forbears, in fact, often had to fight for fair and equal treatment in their jobs. 

As historian Gerard Besson noted in a 2011 blogpost: “The trade union movement in T&T really came into its own in the 1930s. Prior to this, the relationship between operators or owners of businesses, whether agricultural or otherwise, and those who were employed by them, tended to be along the lines of masters and servants. Workers, conditioned by the plantation lifestyle and the force of colonial might, which indoctrinated all involved with a certain stereotype of roles along ethnic and gender lines, more often than not just accepted existing conditions, even if it meant near starvation for them.” 

Ramlochan learned about T&T’s fight for fair and equitable treatment of workers, and the struggles of the working class. She also learned that employers and trade union members can have good working relationships that lead to healthier workplaces, it needn’t be adversarial. 

She does not like the way that industrial relations are often portrayed in a negative light by media or employers. For instance, you only tend to hear about the term “industrial relations” when there are wage claims, strikes, work disruptions, and individuals who are allegedly troublemakers, she said. But industrial relations is a much wider term, part of a multidisciplinary field that’s increasingly called employment relations, encompassing peaceful negotiation of many work-related conditions.

Ramlochan believes unions can contribute to social and political policy, influencing decisions to help the working class—which is essentially most of the T&T employed population.

Of unions and parties

The union at which Ramlochan is employed has had to reinvent itself significantly since state-owned sugar company Caroni (1975) Ltd closed in 2003, leaving thousands unemployed. From a high of more than 17,000 members at one point, when the union largely represented sugar workers, membership plummeted by 10,000-12,000 after the 2003 Caroni closure, estimates current ATGWTU president Nirvan Maharaj. The union is now representing wider categories of workers, as it continues to deal with issues of ex-Caroni workers. • 

The ATGWTU union has had a significant history in T&T. In 1937, the All Trinidad Sugar Estate and Factory Workers Trade Union (ATSEFWTU, as it was then called) was among the very first trades unions to be registered in T&T, along with the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU). Adrian Rienzi was elected president of both OWTU and ATSEFWTU that year. 

The union helped birth political parties. Basdeo Panday became president general of the ATSEFWTU in May 1973, later allying with other union members, George Weekes and Raffique Shah, to form the United Labour Front political party in 1975. 

The labour union-born ULF was the very first political party which hoped to unite the mainly black workers in the oil industry with the mainly Indian workers in the sugar industry, it became T&T’s Opposition party in Parliament for years, and was a precursor to both the NAR in 1986 and the UNC in 1988. And support from the sugar union membership helped Panday to become the first Indian and Hindu prime minister (1995-2001) in the history of T&T. 

More recently, in late 2014, the ATGWTU formed a new political party, the National Solidarity Assembly (NSA), to help in lobbying efforts to resolve continuing issues with ex-Caroni workers. The NSA party has since gone dormant (although it still exists), as dialogue continues with State representatives.

Creating better, healthier workplaces 

Quite apart from unions’ potential to be launching pads for political parties, unions themselves can perform valuable services in industries they represent. Ramlochan said unions can help people obtain better working conditions, better wages, and healthier, safer working environments. Employers don’t always provide these things unless unions help to lobby for them and negotiate terms for them to happen. 

Ramlochan tellingly reminded us that: “We often tend to forget the struggles and what the trade union movement has done for the working class—such as the minimum wage, personal emergency leave, health insurance, retirement plans, and much more.” 

Now, just imagine life without a minimum wage.


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