On Friday, September 23, one of the most boring courts in the land issued a ruling which, to those who pay close enough attention, changes the landscape the Jamaican worker must travail.
The ruling by the court is so monumental that, with the simple uttering of the verdict thousands of Jamaican workers automatically have rights they did not have the day before, and potentially means the total shaking up of major industries across the land.
The ruling issued by the Revenue Court concerned a case involving the National Housing Trust (NHT) and Marksman with key issues being monies owed to NHT and, tied to that, the employment status of security guards. The court ruling shattered almost 30 years of perceived wisdom as the learned judge ruled that the security guards must be viewed and treated as employees — with all the rights and benefits that provide — as opposed to contract workers who are self-employed.
Tales of woe from security guards are legion. They endure one of the most thankless jobs, are asked to do things which literally have nothing to do with security (I am sure we have seen security guards lifting heavy objects, delivering things internally, answering phones and other things). They are among the most grossly underpaid workers in the nation, forcing them to work ungodly hours just to make ends meet, and because of the lack of employee status the job is precarious.
Overnight the ruling will change issues relating to pay and benefits. Just like that, the option of union membership and the security that offers becomes available. Just like that, by the stroke of a pen and the uttering of some phrases, a section of the Jamaican working class gained rights they never had before.
This ruling, as good as it is for the security guards — and it is very good news for them — is potentially even better news for the thousands of Jamaican workers who suffer under the status of contract labourer as opposed to employee.
The issue of contract workers supplanting people with employee status is one which has been spoken about in the media since, at most, 2017 and probably earlier. It was raised by Dr Peter Phillips in 2017 when he was opposition leader. In 2022 it was again raised by Lambert Brown, this time in the Senate. In 2020 Danny Roberts raised issues with the treatment of contract workers, calling for legislative reforms to protect them, while O’Neil Grant noted that contract labour in the public sector is temporary employment which represents an involuntary choice by workers vs permanent employment.
Contract work is now one of the most common forms of employment. All call centres view their workers as contractors, not employees — the benefits may be there, but the rights are not. Many ancillary staff members are contract labourers. In factories we see this popping up, and even in the public sector, the issue of people working under the title of contract labourer rears its head.
The court ruling raises interesting questions for the industries mentioned as well as others which have used the nifty loophole of contract labour to exploit a swath of Jamaican workers. Unions which have been itching to challenge this status now have their in, and if they have the intestinal fortitude can challenge those industries and demand that those workers be brought under the employee banner.
The workers in these various industries must also not shirk the opportunity that has been presented to them. It will be more difficult if done by themselves, but they must now agitate for recognition, taking legal counsel and challenging employees where necessary in court. They must reach out to the unions, if they have not already done so, or been reached out to already and lay the groundwork for the challenging of the status quo.
Jamaican workers have, over the past three decades, lost many rights they had won from the 30s to the 80s. It, in part, has to do with the global trend toward neo-liberalism which meant the weakening of worker power along with State control over such matters. It also has to do with a local capitalist class which has never had the stomach for a fight and is easily swayed by new-fangled ideas as opposed to tried and tested methods of development.
The court ruling is a rare glimmer of hope, a signal that the tide, however strong it may be, is slowly turning. This is something which is not wholly a Jamaican phenomenon as it can be seen in other countries as union membership increases and unions become more militant in their demands.
Our unions have become tame, viewed as no better than the bosses. That image needs to change. This ruling can benefit them if they act correctly just as it can benefit the thousands of workers who toiled under the yoke of contract labourers. It is a crack in the door, but it is an opening, it must be taken lest everything be lost.