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Address by Orlando Scott, Senior Assistant General Secretary, Barbados Workers’ Union, at the REA Environmental International Seminar at the Sherbourne Conference Centre, Two Mill Hill, St. Michael, on February 3, 2006

Distinguished presenters, John H. Murphy and Harold Oxley, friends, participants, I am honoured to be invited to deliver what Mr. Oxley has termed the state of the Nation’s Overview of occupational safety and health in Barbados. Delivering the state of the nation’s address sounds a bit like what President Bush did, earlier this week, and I hope that what I say would not be deemed so controversial.

We in Barbados extend a warm welcome to the Envirohealth International team. We are happy that Barbados, through Harold Oxley’s firm, has been able to develop this working relationship with such a renowned organisation. Developing countries like Barbados, which do not have the financial resources and technical expertise in abundance, need to fashion links with the industrialised world so that we can tap into the abundant human and technical resources which abound in the industrialised world.

First, I would like to compliment Mr. Oxley and his company for the expertise which they have brought to Barbados in the area of industrial hygiene. The Ministry of Labour’s loss, when Mr. Oxley departed to open his business, was the gain of the whole country and the region. Mr. Oxley is among the very few experts in his field in Barbados, and we are hopeful that Government would, with the passing of the Health and Safety at Work legislation, seek to provide upgraded training for the young staff at the factory inspectorate.

I also wish to compliment Mr. Oxley for inviting this expert team to Barbados to help in the promotion of health and safety in our country. The visit by the Envirohealth team and today’s seminar are timely for a number of reasons, and I will say why this is so. I will mention just a few reasons:

  • Barbados has recently passed a new heatlh and safety at work legislation and this law, as welcome as it is, will set in motion a few organisational problems, if we fail to put in place the required institutional support;
  • Secondly, the exceptional growth of the informal sector and the inclination of some people in this sector to take risks at work may be the drivers of work place fatalities and accidents;
  • Unsound working environments, workplace accidents and illnesses, and the resulting absenteeism and low productivity are all very costly issues to which the Social Partners need to pay far greater attention. The more than $11 million which the NIS Office pays in sickness benefits is something to which all Barbadians should pay attention.
  • Finally, the modern workplace in Barbados is beset with innumerable challenges. In Barbados, we are faced with issues which range from the physical to the psychological. Only those of us who are hibernating have not heard about the poor physical conditions particularly in the Public Sector, which have resulted in much media coverage, weekly worker protests, absenteeism, poor morale among the workforce and the consequential drop in productivity.
  • The occupational issues with which we are faced in Barbados, and which are unvarying challenges, range then from poor indoor air quality, alcohol and drug abuse, workplace violence, and HIV/AIDS, to chronic illnesses and mental health issues. There is little difference between the workplace in Barbados and the worksite in London or New York. The challenges are the same.

I will deal first of all with the informal sector because we seem to be paying little significance to that area, even though the informal sector and small businesses are the areas which have recorded the highest number of workplace fatalities in Barbados, over the past five years. Let me say that Barbados has always had a flourishing informal sector, but, in the past decade, with the onset of globalisation which has resulted in corporate downsizing, lay-offs, restructuring, acquisitions, mergers and the like, the informal sector has grown significantly as many workers, included highly skilled workers, have been laid off, and a different class has entered that area. A number of small and medium-sized businesses have been set up, by these skilled people, some with limited capital, and this is where the problem resides. We have seen more and more of these businesses involved in the growing construction sector, operating in most cases as sub-contractors or as home builders. The question is - do they have the appropriate equipment and the health and safety skills and training to function, safely? While we welcome this entrepreneurial spirit among our people, businesses that are under capitalised, both in terms of financing and expertise, will always spell trouble. It is for this reason, therefore, that Government agencies have to be more proactive with regard to monitoring.

The underlying reason why I wish this morning to further raise the question of the informal sector is the fact that occupational health and safety practitioners are making the very serious point that, with the changes in the Barbados economy, and with the shift from the formal factory or office environment to the home as the place of work, the definition of the workplace is becoming vague. And you may note that some of the recent workplace fatalities in Barbados occurred within this setting; this feature will create substantial challenges for Government inspectors. I submit that this phenomenon demands more study and urgent action.

While we welcome the Health and Safety at Work Act, Government needs to move with haste to strengthen the inspectorate numerically and in terms of expertise. This new legislation will embrace all areas of economic interests on the island and will clearly demand more trained staff to adequately oversee the increasing areas of coverage. Over the past twenty years, the trade unions, Government, and employers have been involved in considerable training in occupational safety and health and it is very clear that the awareness in health and safety among workers has improved considerably. The result is that today’s workers are less inclined to operate in conditions which impair their health or threaten their safety.

What has happened is while workers’ awareness has been strengthened, corresponding measures had not been put in place at the levels of management, especially in the Public Sector, to deal with issues to safeguard health and safety such as the proper maintenance of offices and other buildings. The result is that Barbados has a sad legacy of poor building maintenance in the Government sector.

I do not wish to make it all doom and gloom or that Government alone must do it all. While it is true that Government has to create the environment, by putting policy framework in place, there is much that workers, guided by their trade unions, and supported by management can do to create a next to wholesome working environment. One of the strong points of the new legislation is that it creates the opportunity for the establishment of joint health and safety committees. These committees provide the opening for management and worker, through their trade unions, to sit at the table and work cooperatively in building a democratic structure to oversee health and safety at their places of work. Joint health and safety committees, if given the opportunity to function efficiently, can reduce a lot of the industrial relations tensions as managers and workers, working as a team, set about the business of improving their working environment. Some of these committees have worked well in the Private Sector and we believe that a similar attempt can be made in the Public Sector to improve the work environment there.

Today’s session is the start of a national educational effort to educate Barbadians, among other things, about the new legislation. We welcome that effort, and we than REA Envirohealth International, as we do believe that the Social partners will have to continue in today’s vein. We look forward to a productive day.