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Date: Mon, 22 Jan 1996 06:44:19 GMT
Sender: Activists Mailing List <>
Subject: Caribbean Labor Hit By NAFTA

/** 221.0 **/
** Topic: Carib Labor Hit By NAFTA **
** Written 8:36 PM Jan 18, 1996 by labornews in **
From: Institute for Global Communications <>

Beleaguered Unions Plan Survival Strategy

By Bert Wilkinson, IPS, 15 January 1996

GEORGETOWN, Jan 15 (IPS) - Twenty years ago Caribbean labour leaders were protectors of the work force concentrating on improving wages and working conditions of employees.

Now leaders from The Bahamas in the north Caribbean to Suriname in the south are conceding the need for a more pragmatic approach to employer/employee relations given the pace of economic, political and social changes across the globe.

With this in mind affiliates of the Caribbean Congress of Labour (CCL) Monday began a five-day symposium here aimed at determining how the movement should face up to such pressing issues as corporate downsizing, the removal of state subsidies and demands from the West for small, vulnerable nations in the region to tear down import tariff barriers.

''Before, unions looked at micro areas like salaries, but today we are jolted into the realisation that everything is hooked up to international trade and how it affects our economies and ultimately our workers,'' said CCL President Lloyd Goodleigh of Jamaica.

More than ever now, Goodleigh says, leaders have to be aware and alert to changes and must feel responsible for helping to steer political leaders and workers in directions that aptly respond to current changes.

One such change has to do with the way the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) involving the Untied States, Canada and Mexico, is affecting economic life in the English-speaking Caribbean.

Already transnational companies are moving to Mexico, responding to the lure of cheap labour. Several manufacturers have pulled out of Jamaica for instance, leaving hundreds of workers unemployed.

Speaker after speaker at Monday's opening ceremony spoke of thousands of jobs lost in the United States and Canada due to Nafta. The point was if these larger countries were reeling under the fall-out of Nafta, smaller nations such as those in the region should take note and make plans.

With such negative effects apparently evident in such a short period, leaders say a new look also has to be taken at U.S.-led moves to have a hemisphere-wide American Free Trade Agreement (FTAA) by 2005.

''I do not know that we could cope with it. It is something that we have to look at,'' said CCL Vice-President Robert Morris.

''For instance, overnight in Jamaica we have lost over 1,000 jobs to Mexico in the garment industry. Our garment industry which was thriving is now dying and so we have to find ways of responding to that,'' says Goodleigh.

But observers of the industry say Goodleigh has overstated the case. Although some companies have left the island and others have abandoned plans to expand operations there, the industry in the northern Caribbean island is far from dying.

Similarly the Caribbean garment industry, though widely acknowledged as being one of the most vulnerable to the Nafta arrangements, has continued to grow in 1995, albeit at a slower rate.

From January to September last year the regional industry expanded by 24 percent against 27 percent growth for the corresponding period in 1994.

The regional labour movement is worried also about corporate downsizing and structural adjustment, both of which have seen an increase in unemployment regionwide -- now some 20 percent -- and a corresponding decline in union membership and influence.

In Guyana for instance the largest union, the Guyana Public Services Union, has seen its membership drop from some 20,000 to 16,000 over the last five years.

Over in Trinidad, six of the country's 97 unions have folded since 1994, five of them in the first four months of 1995. Its largest union, the National Union of Government and Federated Workers has moved from a high of 43,000 members to just 15,000.

Labour leaders point also to changes in the European Union, a traditional safe haven for Caribbean exports such as banana, sugar, rice and rum.

Officials say there is every likelihood that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will rule in favour of U.S.-backed Latin banana producers challenging preferential treatment of Caribbean bananas in Europe. These producers are charging that the EU regime unfairly discriminates against their fruits.

Banana is a lifeline export of several Caribbean countries, accounting for up to 70 percent of foreign exchange earnings and employing as much as half of the labour force in some territories.

The trade unionists worry too that the United States' congress insistence on penalising countries doing business with Cuba could affect large entities in Jamaica, the Bahamas and Trinidad.

Businessmen in these countries, particularly those involved in the important tourism sector, have invested heavily in Cuba's tourism and labour leaders feel that any U.S. backlash could lead to contraction of operations and thus lay-offs in the home territories.

[c] 1995, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS) All rights reserved

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