The Role of Trade Unions in Jamaica

by Walter Johnson; Updated September 26, 2017
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Jamaica has traditionally been the political “leader” of the Caribbean islands. Jamaica is the first modern, self-governing Caribbean state, has a fairly advanced economy and is the economic leader of the areas. Its organized labor is extremely active and is centered around the two major political parties. Labor is represented in government, and the island's different unions are backed by political factions, one seeking a self-sufficient Caribbean area, the other seeking an alliance with the United States.

Background

Organized labor has always been the backbone of Jamaican politics. This, however, does not mean that labor is better off on that island than anywhere else. Labor unions are largely part of a specific governing coalition. The two major movements have been the socialist movement of Michael Manley, and the free-market, pro-American faction typified by Edward Seaga. The earliest trade union disputes occurred in the sugar sector of the island's economy, one of its most lucrative exports. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Jamaican government promoted some limited industrialization, which led to the creation of an industrial proletariat seeking a minimum wage, job security and good working conditions. This faction became Michael Manley's base.

History and Ideas

The theory of Jamaican organized labor is independence. National independence must be connected to both economic independence and the security of work, pay and benefits. The political power of the unions has been diluted by near constant splits and schisms among union leaders. Even under the socialist Prime Minister Manley, labor made little headway due to constant debt, American hostility and the stresses of industrialization.

Labor Issues

In modern Jamaica, there are dozens, sometimes hundreds, of trade union disputes a year. As these unions have a major political role, workers on the island are aware of their political force, and seek to use it in any way possible. There are dozens of important unions on the island, each with its own specific political orientation. The government controls the Industrial Disputes Tribunal, which is the main state body dealing with labor problems. Traditionally, Jamaican independence is connected with active and highly political organized labor. The result has been a struggling economy an chronic unemployment of over 15 percent since 2000.

Modern Role

In 2009, Minister of Labor Pearlnel Charles made a speech to the main Jamaican Federation of Trade Unions. He laid out the most beneficial role of Jamaican unions. He stated that social integration of labor with the island's culture, tradition and economic development is the main role for labor – the idea is to democratize the workplace. Specifically, organized labor should continue to protect its gains in minimum wages, fair income and social security. Full employment is the true long-term goal for Jamaican labor. Ultimately, Jamaican labor should take the lead in protecting jobs in the face of global recession and the lack of a robust American market.

About the Author

Walter Johnson has more than 20 years experience as a professional writer. After serving in the United Stated Marine Corps for several years, he received his doctorate in history from the University of Nebraska. Focused on economic topics, Johnson reads Russian and has published in journals such as “The Salisbury Review,” "The Constantian" and “The Social Justice Review."

Photo Credits

  • jamaica flag icon. (with clipping path) image by Andrey Zyk from Fotolia.com