Much attention has surrounded the increased industrial action taking place in Barbados and there have been many opinions expressed on the issue. Since prevention and management of these types of issues fall squarely within the scope of the HR practitioner, we thought it prudent to explore the issues from the perspective of the HR practitioner.

What causes industrial relations issues?

All HR practitioners must deal with industrial relations issues and their ultimate aim is to ensure these are kept to a minimum. These issues often stem from employees’ grievances which, in their views, are not being properly addressed. Where obligations are improperly discharged, agreements are dishonored, decisions are inadequately implemented are all instances in which grievances may arise. Additionally operational changes may cause other issues to arise or there may be dissatisfaction with management approaches and with policies implemented (or not implemented).

There is no such thing as a small issue if viewed through the eyes of the person who is aggrieved. A grievance triggers an emotional response which cannot be appeased by logic or reason but by action. Any concern left unaddressed can become a grievance, which if left unaddressed can become an industrial relations issue. Any industrial relations issue left unaddressed can, ultimately, negatively impact the employment relationship between the employer and employee and can potentially disrupt the business’ operational efficiency.

Industrial relations issues are inevitable – they cannot be avoided. They arise because of the differences in the interests of the employers (management) and their employees (labour).  Management focuses on what will benefit the profitability and continuity of the business; the employee focuses on what can enhance their lives and their life chances.  Although they are both in the same workspace, their perspectives, goals and objectives are quite different and many times, may be in conflict.

What are the rules and regulations which guide the labour-management relationship?

The rules and regulations which guide the relationship have evolved over time and are not documented in any one place. Custom and practice over many years of workplace interactions and negotiations between employers (or by their trade union- the Barbados Employers’ Confederation) and their employees (or their trade unions) have established their course of dealing and the protocols which should be followed. From our experience, it does make a difference if the employee works in the private or public sector – the grievance handling processes are less clearly defined in the public sector. However, while the steps to be taken may differ depending on the organisation, agency or department, there are some general tenets which are common and in every case communication is key.

Generally, it is best practice for the employee to raise the matter at their workplace, with persons who can do something about it. Many times, discussions take place among peers, but these concerns are not formally raised with the supervisors or managers whose responsibility it is ensure the issues are addressed. Many employees believe their managers/supervisors “should know” because that “is what they being paid for”. It is not always the case. If, after a formal complaint is made and after reasonable time for action is given, the matter remains unaddressed or there is no feedback on its status, the employee, along other colleagues who are similarly affected by the issue, should also make their concerns known. If the supervisor/manager was minded or give low priority to an issue raised by one person, he/she is less likely to do so when more persons raise the same issue.   The supervisor/manager also has a responsibility to ensure that his/her supervisor is also aware that there are issues being raised. They are under an obligation to see how best the issues being raised can be addressed.  The affected employees (or their representatives) ought to be aware that failure to reach a decision at each stage should result in the matter being elevated to a higher level until the key decision maker is reached. Failure to find a solution agreeable to the aggrieved party at any stage, despite meetings, does not mean that the matter is over, even though it may appear that it is no longer being actively pursued. 

Now in the public sector environment, this approach may not be as straightforward as was presented above. The structure of the public sector makes providing solutions to grievances somewhat more challenging. This is because in this sector rules and regulations are more rigid, decision-making autonomy is more restricted, and areas of responsibility for employee concerns are quite fragmented. Collectively all of these can delay progress. For example, employee appointments are approved by one Ministry, requests for increases are approved by another, safety and health concerns are investigated by yet another and the employees highlighting the grievances or on whose behalf the grievances are being raised can be under the purview of yet another Ministry. Follow-up and follow through is a constant requirement in order to ensure that matters are being addressed and even then, can be stone-walled somewhere along the line. However, even though it may appear that the matter is no longer being actively pursued on behalf of the aggrieved party, it does not mean that the matter is over.

Industrial action arises when those who are aggrieved feel their voices are not being heard or their concerns are not being taken seriously. At times like these, they determine it more effective to act collectively to demonstrate their importance in the operations. At this stage, all matters previously raised become pertinent to their issues if not being heard or not being taken seriously and are brought to bear on the situation.

It is in your best interest to engage with your employees (or their representatives) at your earliest opportunity if a matter is causing any of them to be aggrieved. Seeking to resolve the issues at the earliest opportunity is important because the longer the matter remains unaddressed, the more dissatisfied your employees may become not only about that matter, but about others they may have previously chosen to overlook.

One of the most progressive companies with which we have worked provided the members of its management team with an IR philosophy. This outlined how IR issues would be viewed by the company, how they were to be handled, and the spirit which should embody any engagement with the workers’ representatives. With this clearly articulated, matters raised by employees to their supervisors and managers were seen as constructive input and efforts were made to fix and improve what was highlighted because in the end, the company benefitted. This simple philosophical statement set the tone for meaningful labour-management relations and engagement. Communication is key.    

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This