By Alicia Wallace
Most of us have to work. We do not have to like it, but we do have to show up and perform tasks as assigned by whoever calls the shots. We labour in exchange for compensation which includes a salary or wages. While this is the only form of compensation some of us receive, others have health insurance, pension plans, gas allowances and discounts.
The way we think about jobs is often limited to this oversimplified exchange of labour for compensation. We do not give thought to other conditions and assumptions that make the relationship between employer and employee — and between employee and the work itself — function. It may be for this reason we are unsympathetic to unions and their members, especially when they threaten industrial action. Honestly, is there anything else they can do to get our attention?
Post Office woes
For years, we have heard the cry of the Post Office staff. They have worked for far too long in a dilapidated building, exposed to mould and at risk of injury due to the general state of disrepair.
There is the reasonable expectation — mostly unspoken — of safety at work. We expect the work environment to be comfortable, conducive to the work being done and equipped with the tools required. The Post Office should have a shelving system that can be navigated by all staff, equipment to reach all storage areas and cash registers among other physically obvious items.
What has not existed at the main Post Office for years is a safe environment. Every day, staff were at risk, both from falling debris from the ceiling and breathing in harmful toxins. Their work contracts may not say they are entitled to clean air, or necessary precautions to avoid physical harm, but it is assumed. The most obvious rights tend to be those most often infringed upon in the workplace. We, however, do not care about anyone else’s rights. Not until we are directly affected.
We can’t get our mail? It is definitely time to move the Post Office. Sure, put the staff in a better environment if that is what it takes. We need to get our Christmas cards on time, and we are ready to make it happen. When is the march?
As we all know, employees can make or break a business. People complain every day, often publicly using social media, about poor customer service and their decisions to stop patronizing certain businesses. When money is being spent, we expect our needs to be met. For many Bahamians, smiles and niceties are expected too. When these are not received or have to be prompted, there is rethinking. Should you spend your money there? Should you ask for a manager? Is it worth it to complain? Would it feel better to blast them on Facebook?
As consumers, we think of all the ways we can make ourselves feel better about the negative experiences we have. Sometimes we just want someone to say we were right, the other person was wrong and they will have hell to pay. We are concerned about being heard and receiving compensation, whether it is a knowing nod of the head, a discount, or someone losing their job to appease us. Why would it be any different for employees with grievances? They, too, want to be heard, and if it is not happening behind closed doors, it only makes sense to make it public.
There are many businesses in The Bahamas that break the law every day. They overwork, underpay and always find a workaround. There have been far too many stories about people who do not find out their NIB contributions being deducted from their pay, are not being made until they find out they do not qualify for a benefit they should receive. These businesses are sometimes reported, but people are rarely compensated, unable to assume the burden a legal battle entails. Where can they go for support?
When I returned to The Bahamas from university, my first job was at a company that seemed to intentionally hire young people. I initially thought it may have been because the owners were young, but soon realised it was a way to cut costs. They ignored labour laws, assuming no one else knew them. “Training” was a few weeks of work for less than half of minimum wage. People were forced to work overtime, some saw deductions related to warnings and most were denied vacation pay.
Management refused to speak to upset customers, subjecting frontline staff — with no authority to offer redress — to verbal abuse. Morale was low, but most employees did not think they had anywhere else to go. They did not know the law and even when I explained it to them, they did not feel comfortable addressing the issues. I was able to advocate for myself and tried to encourage others to do the same until they could find better jobs, but it was not enough for people who could not afford to be fired.
No one teaches young people how to negotiate salaries, what to look for in job contracts, how to monitor NIB contributions, or ways to use the law to get what they are owed. This is a massive national failure.
In the current economy, we count ourselves lucky if we have work. It does not feel like a time to complain about low benefits, poor working conditions, lack of training, or limited opportunities to grow. We are convinced that we need to do whatever we can to hold on to the jobs we have, and if that means smiling and pretending everything is great, we can do that. Not only has this become a norm for some of us, but we expect it of everyone else. Anyone who dares to complain is ungrateful. To demand more or better is to think you are above others and cannot be replaced. We become upset with people, even combative toward them, when they draw attention to issues affecting themselves and others.
“Fire them all! Plenty people need jobs.”
We hear the cries of people we depend on most. Teachers are under-resourced every year, work far more than 40 hours per week, go beyond the limits of their jobs by, for example, providing meals for children, but still do not receive adequate support from the public. Doctors and nurses face similar issues in the clinics and hospitals. Still, when they cry out, we hear only complaints, ingratitude and the suggestions that a few jobs will be available soon. Again, unless we are directly affected, the problem is not real.
Changes need to be made in the workplace, both in the private and public sectors. Accountability and transparency are not only for government administrations, but for everyone at every level.
When something is not working, we should be able to trace the failure back to a condition or system that needs repair. It could be the air conditioning in an operating theatre, the infrastructure at the Post Office, teachers with no designated room after a hurricane, or low morale resulting from illegal practices.
Operating a business like a revolving door is expensive. It is much more fiscally responsible to recruit, train and retain employees, even if they take industrial action. We spend a lot of time at work. We do it for pay, yes, but there has to be more in the compensation package than money. It is better for everyone when employers negotiate, creating better conditions and relationships which allow employees to provide better service. At the end of the day, that is what many of us care about most, and we need to understand its connection to the entire work environment. Employee and customer satisfaction are, without a doubt, intrinsically linked.