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posted 3 Dec 2015, 09:24 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 3 Dec 2015, 09:32 ]
Whenever, our neo-colonial economy goes into freefall as a result of the decrease in the price of hydrocarbons, the employers and their enforcers in the state (itself the biggest employer in the country), begin to prattle about productivity, a tripartite approach and make strident calls to the trade union movement to put the “national interest” first.

George Chambers had his productivity consultations in the early eighties in Chaguaramas and while that talk shop was taking place, contract workers, in the offshore oil industry, led by Winston “Man Man” Edward shut down the production of oil and gas in a frontal challenge to the transnational energy companies and the government.

Since then we have had productivity councils, productivity centres, social compacts, Fyzabad Accords, memoranda of understanding; all in attempts to get the trade unions to co-operate in selling to the workers the idea that we can “produce” ourselves out of economic recession/depression if only workers would transform their work ethic.

The workers have never taken the grip, but many trade union leaders have and continue to do so, because they accept the idea that we can “produce” our way out of the quagmire and because they believe they have more influence within the working class than they actually do.

Of course, there is a quid pro quo (you scratch my back...) which may involve board appointments for trade union leaders and as it was succinctly put they want to be part of the “governance.” Why would anyone want to be associated with a governance model that is predicated on forcing workers to bear the burden of the capitalist crisis eludes me! And experience over the years should have taught us by now that co-optation into the governance structures has never resulted in benefits to the working class; only more pressure!

So what is this productivity that has been described in an invitation to a JTUM productivity forum as “one of the most important factors for a country’s economic success and workers are at the heart of this issue”?

There are as many definitions of productivity as there are different interests spinning the concept to serve their purposes. A few will suffice: there is workplace productivity which refers to how much work is accomplished in a work environment (for example, an office, construction site or laboratory) and how efficiently workers complete tasks at their workplaces.

There is Physical productivity which is defined as the quantity of output produced by one unit of production input in a unit of time. For example, certain equipment can produce 10 tons of output per hour.

There is Economic productivity defined as the value of output obtained with one unit of input. For example, if a worker produces in an hour an output of 2 units, whose price is $10 each, then his productivity is $20.

There are many more such definitions. What is noteworthy, though, is that after the concept of productivity is stripped down to its essence it revolves around the role of labour in creating value. It is often said, therefore, that productivity is output per unit of labour (this is what human beings have been reduced to – units of labour)). Productivity must not be confused with increased production. It is output per worker. It, therefore, is the rate of exploitation of the working class.


Labour power creates value over and above that which is necessary for the worker to survive. That surplus value is what is appropriated by the employer. The less time it takes the worker to create the value which assures his survival, the greater the surplus value that accrues to the employer.

Twenty years ago, Fredric Clairmont, former senior economist at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development put it well. He said “The classic and oldest way of exploiting labour has been the lengthening of the working day; the second without lengthening the working day is to speed up the work tempo; the third the introduction of labour saving techniques with automation the highest expression...all three are interdependent.” He went on to say “...when total output is stationary, any rise in labour productivity boosts unemployment.”

Let us emphasise: “when total output is stationary, any rise in labour productivity boosts unemployment.”

When labour saving devices or techniques are introduced into the workplace, it often results in one worker producing as much or more than that which was produced by a number of workers before such introduction. This boosts productivity but results in retrenchment

Workers have no control over the configuration of production; what technology is used, how much units of output are to be produced, what is the state of the market and most important of all what is the optimal level of profit. Increased productivity often leads to unemployment, because fewer workers are used to produce the same level of production or production is increased beyond what the market could absorb. A persistent feature of modern capitalism is that industrial output is often way below installed productive capacity; it is, therefore, the height of foolishness to believe that boosting productivity is the key to recovery.


What boosting productivity often does is result in a crisis of over-production. Capitalism is a strange beast. Because its motive force is the accumulation and concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands through the mechanism of profit maximisation, too many goods may be produced than the market can absorb because the prevailing prices may not assure for many producers the profit levels they had forecast.

There will then be cutbacks in production, the retrenchment of workers, the shutting in of equipment, machinery, factory and warehouse space etc. This, of course, leads to a reduction in effective demand, which leads to further retrenchment, cutbacks in deployment of capital goods and a further reduction in effective demand. You, therefore, have a situation of people wanting goods; equipment and capital goods lying idle and workers who have the skill to operate the capital goods being unemployed. There is, therefore, an economic crisis, not because of scarcity, but because of over-production.

The contradiction at the heart of the capitalist system is that the capitalist always strives, at the point of production, to reduce labour’s share of the value produced. This involves raising the productivity of labour to heights undreamt of. In the course of doing this, entire craft skills and industries are destroyed, masses of workers are sent home, wage levels are held as close to a minimum as possible, given the balance of class forces, and as surely as night follows day effective demand plummets, not because consumers do not want the goods, but because they cannot afford them.

The technology exists to provide a civilised standard of living for all, but that technology is deployed within a system based on profit maximisation, which subsumes the needs of people to the never ending pursuit of profit in order to accumulate and concentrate capital in an ever-narrowing circle.

It is clear that the economic crisis in T&T has nothing to do with productivity, work ethic, absenteeism or anything of that nature. We cannot produce ourselves out of this crisis. When the international energy industry sneezes we catch the flu. We depend for our very existence on the foreign exchange from that industry.

Those who have first crack at the foreign exchange do not invest it in areas where more foreign exchange can be earned or which can lead to the expenditure of less foreign exchange; instead they invest in real estate, build malls which are stocked with imported goods, use it to acquire companies out of T&T, pay for cocaine, and sequester it in foreign bank accounts. Our problem is not productivity. Our problem is that we are integrated into the international capitalist system in a dependent fashion.

Let us look at some of the other factors that may impinge on productivity. Often productivity depends on the level of technology utilised in the workplace, the state of the infrastructure (traffic springs to mind), the nature of the education system, low levels of technological innovation, financial decisions taken at company level, levels of corruption, absorptive capacity of the market; availability of foreign exchange. Workers cannot “produce away” these problems. They are locked out of the decision making process and have no say in determining these matters


The employers constantly bump their gums about work ethic and call upon trade union leaders to urge their members to work harder. In the first place, less than 20% of the work force is unionised, so that trade union leaders have no access to these workers, far less being able to influence them.

These workers are paid scandalously low wages; are denied basic facilities to carry out their jobs (pregnant women standing on their feet for 8 hours); are denied legal entitlements according to the minimum wages orders; are subject to sexual harassment, bullying and discriminatory practices; are subject to unhealthy and dangerous working conditions; have very little job security (contract, casual, temporary); have their NIS contributions stolen by the employers and  many of them are denied the minimal redress available in the industrial relations system because they are not considered workers according to the Industrial Relations Act.

In sum: the vast majority of the labour force operates in a master-servant relationship with their employers. Yet these workers are expected to display a high work ethic, to bow, scrape, grin and say: yes Massa, we will not take sick leave; we will work overtime and public holidays at straight time; you can feel me up anytime you want, after all you are the boss; we don’t mind having to hustle transport after leaving your fast food job after ten in the night, we does pray and the Lord will protect us against bandits and raper men. Work ethic? Gimme a break!

In unionised work places, the situation is a bit better, with workers, at least, having a defence mechanism to beat off the attacks of the employers. So the tack is they tell us that in the hard times we must hold the “national interest” paramount. So we must be prepared to give up wage increases or take wage cuts, we must put our shoulder to the wheel and share the burden of adjustment.

Starts to sound like the late eighties/early nineties, when in the “national interest”, public sector workers were put to the sword, losing their Cost of Living Allowances, suffering a wage freeze, then a 10% wage cut.

Starts to sound like the late eighties/ early nineties, when total employment in public enterprises stood at 41, 673 in 1991. By 1997, it fell to 33,236. Over 8,000 jobs were lost. Of course, that was fine, because it was all in the “national interest”!


This is just in the public sector, many jobs were also lost in the private sector as old money was replaced by new and the conglomerates moved out of the control of the old French Creole sector into other hands fuelled by drug money and underhand dealings. Thousands of people lost their homes and thousands migrated. But that’s fine it was all in the national interest!

The ironic thing is that when the fatted calf was being slaughtered and feasted upon in times of economic upswing, there was no talk of sharing the spoils in the “national interest”. Workers still struggled to have their collective agreements settled. Almost all collective agreements are still a whole negotiating round (three years) behind in terms of settlement; some are two negotiating rounds behind. The capitalists did not share the largesse in the good times, but they insist that the workers must share the burden in the bad times and when they say share the burden, they actually mean we must shoulder the whole thing! Talk about brass face!

The national interest always seems to involve the working class, the poor and the exploited banding their collective belly and carrying the burden that the capitalists created. When the capitalists grab the lion’s share of the nation’s income they say that the common good is best served by the uninhibited pursuit of self interest. When the workers try to enjoy more of the fruits produced by their labour alarm bells are sounded and the doctrine of the national interest is trotted out.

All this talk about productivity is just a guise for justifying the ongoing attempt integral to the neo-liberal perspective of transferring income from working people to those who have plundered the economy in the first place and are bold face enough to turn around and insist that working people must pay for the sins of their exploiters. What a thing! And many of us agree that we must do so and co-operate in our own exploitation!

Let us be realistic: no economic advisory board is going to bring benefits to the workers; board positions for trade unionists are not going to change the price of doubles given the reality of a weak, divided, non-self reliant labour movement, the leadership of which is quick to sign accords and MOUs with capitalist political parties, but slow to develop a united, conscious, democratic, fighting fit trade union movement based on the protection, advancement and defence of the interests of the working class and not of their personal interests.

The debate in the labour movement should not be influenced by those who exploit our labour. They want to talk about productivity and like good little children we trump and follow suit. We should be setting our own agenda. The debate should be about how are we going to organise ourselves to mount a fight back against the austerity programme that if not beaten back is going to  wreak horrific damage on our standard of living, our quality of life and the future of our offspring.

Gerry Kangalee,
3 Dec 2015, 09:24