'Total disgrace'

Trade unionist likens labour standards on Chinese-backed local projects to slavery

BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS
Senior staff reporter
saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, August 24, 2017

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PRESIDENT of the Union of Clerical, Administrative and Supervisory Employees Vincent Morrison has characterised the conditions under which Jamaicans are working on various Chinese investment projects as a “total disgrace”, drawing reference to recent statements made by Opposition spokesman on national security Peter Bunting.

Bunting found himself in a pickle after making online allegations about a lack of transparency by Chinese companies operating in Jamaica; that the country is facing economic colonisation by these entities; and that some of these entities use convicted labourers on local projects.

“Insofar as Mr Bunting is concerned, there is some method in his madness in terms of what he's saying about the Chinese. I'm not afraid of colonisation. What I am concerned about is the total disrespect that the Chinese have shown so far as it regards industrial relations,” Morrison told the Jamaica Observer yesterday.

He was speaking against the background of fresh reports of Chinese involvement in the expansion of the State-owned oil refinery, a project which was originally supposed to be carried out by the Venezuelans who have a 49 per cent stake in Petrojam, but was stalled for almost 10 years now.

Morrison argued that of the numerous major investment arrangements that successive governments have entered into with other countries, the treatment of local workers is perhaps at its worst under the various Chinese contracts, which are mainly being carried out by China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC).

“We have a Joint Industrial Council (JIC) for the building and construction industry that has stood the test of time. When we built Alpart in the 60s that arrangement served as the basis and all the construction facilities — power plants, factories, even the highway…The French people, they honoured the JIC agreement to the letter.

“The French contractors did not treat the unions and the workers like how the Chinese are treating the workers. I have no apologies in saying that the governments have failed to settle this aspect of Chinese operations. I don't know why they are afraid,” he said.

The veteran trade union leader further pointed out that stakeholders in the building and construction industry are very concerned, as they feel that the Chinese have been given such an advantage that they are unable to compete with them.

“The labour standards on these projects are akin to slavery,” Morrison remarked.

He said after writing to the Chinese ambassador about the situation three months ago, a meeting was arranged with CHEC representatives, but that quickly deteriorated.

“We had to walk out of this meeting. The comments from the representatives, we think, were rude; both the BITU(Bustamante Industrial Trade Union) and ourselves got up and walked out of the meeting,” he told the Observer.

“What is happening on the projects, in terms of workers' rights, is a total disgrace, and had Mr Bunting come from that angle I would have been out there supporting him a hundred per cent,” Morrison said, pointing to conditions such as complaints of not enough sanitary facilities, short pay, and lack of potable water.

Morrison argued that, by not acting, the Government is, in essence, short-changing itself in areas such as statutory deductions, which are not made from some workers' salaries.

A representative at CHEC explained to the Observer that these deductions are made for all direct employees of the company.

“We follow the regulations,” he stated, but noted that for the labourers on work sites, deductions are dependent on the nature of their contracts. “Sometimes they are engaged by the liaison office, so that we don't have control of,” he said.

Meanwhile, Morrison accused the labour ministry of being disinterested in the issues affecting the workers.

“This could be resolved if there was any interest by the Ministry of Labour. It's a disgrace to see what is happening to the Jamaican worker. People like Mr [Hugh] Shearer and Mr [Norman] Manley would turn in their graves,” he said.

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