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Point and Counter-Point: Unionism in Belize – “Essential” and “Frontline” workers

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Former employees of Bowen & Bowen

Posted: Monday, July 26, 2021. 3:34 pm CST.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.

By Dorian A. Barrow, Ph.D., Florida State University: Unions are free to form and operate in Belize and employers have been penalized for violating union rights under the labour code. However, as Senator Smith found out the hard way, while our labour unions are active and politically influential, their ability to protect workers’ rights remains limited in practice. For example, more and more workers are losing their jobs when they object to taking the COVID-19 AstraZeneca Vaccine.

There are also some restrictions on the right to strike and an official definition of “Essential Workers” that is broader than the International Labour Organization. Furthermore, as Belize approaches a possible third COVID-19 pandemic wave, the lists of ‘essential workers’ expand and the terms essential and frontline workers are used at times interchangeably. In my mind they are becoming more and more the same, so I decided to take a closer look. I was shocked to find how conceptually different ‘essential worker’ is from ‘frontline worker’, and to learn of this new category of workers called “essential-frontline workers”. The demographics of what the three categories of workers represent have some significantly different characteristics, with the most needed being the least rewarded.

During the shut down in Belize in 2020, many Belizeans had to put their health and lives on the line working in industries that were critical to running of our country due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. These “Frontline” workers worked in jobs that required them to work outside of their homes, putting themselves at risk of exposure. Some examples of frontline workers are those who staff our grocery stores and restaurants, provide waste management services, operate public transportation, or provide critical police, military, or fire services. On the other hand, an ‘essential worker’ is a public sector or private sector employee who is considered to provide an essential service. Essential Services may refer to a class of occupations that has been legislated by a government to have special restrictions in regards to labour actions such as not being allowed to strike. The point is that there is a difference between these two categories of workers, to the extent that even the International Labour Office, a United Nations (UN) agency distinguishes an essential service from a minimal service.

Typically, essential services include police, fire fighting, armed forces and corrections but not limited to these occupations. Recently the essential workers list has been expanded and now includes Healthcare and Public Health Workers, Food and Agricultural Workers, Energy Employees, Water and Waste Water Managers, transportation and logistic workers, public works, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Workers, and those people working in the Financial Services sectors. On the other hand, the jobs considered frontline includes first responders, people working in the education sector, food and agriculture, correction workers, postal service workers, public transit workers and grocery store workers. This interim list identifies ‘essential workers’ as those who conduct a range of operations and services in industries that are essential to ensure the continuity of critical functioning of the state.

You will note that this typology places some occupations mutually exclusive to one or the other major category of workers. For example, teachers, postal and grocery store workers are only frontline workers, whereas first responders, food and agricultural workers, and public transit workers are both frontline workers and essential workers, and they form this new rapidly evolving class of workers, called ‘essential frontline workers’, are the workers most at risk in the pandemic and most needed across the board, but as a group, they are the least protected by their labour unions. They also form an interesting demographic profile of the country’s population.

What we can learn from the workers demographic profile of the country’s population can also be through identifying essential and frontline workers and understanding their characteristics. Such a demographic profile of the country’s population would be useful for policymakers and researchers in targeting social insurance and safety net policies in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Recently, the Institute of Labour Economics developed a working definition that may inform additional research and policy discussions and provide data on the demographic and labour market composition of these workers. What they found that was universal was that the broader group of essential workers comprises a large share of the labour force and tends to mirror its demographics and labour market characteristics. In contrast, the narrower category of frontline workers, on average, “is less educated, has lower wages, and has higher representation of men and disadvantaged minorities”.

In short, the research shows that the category of the workers that the society needs the most, the ‘essential frontline workers’, is being rewarded the least, and has the lowest level of protection from unions. I think the Social Security Board should look closely at this and find ways to fund some research in this area at institutions like Galen University, The University of Belize and the Statistical Institute of Belize (SIB), since greater knowledge in this area, could lead to the creation of policies whereby the State compensate these categories of workers more from our Social Security Fund.

Do feel free to challenge any or all of the issues raised in this essay above and let us get the discussion on the sustainable development of the country going.

Dr. Dorian Barrow is an educator with a long history of involvement in education in Belize, having served as a Lecturer at the University of Belize, and as Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Education. Dr. Barrow is an eminent professional who is well respected both locally and abroad. He is serving as an editorial member and reviewer of several international reputed journals and has authored many research articles/books related to education. Apart from education, he is also a sports enthusiast.

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