Champions of Worker Education: Elma Francois Institute for Research and Debate (EFIRD) at  Cipriani College of Labour & Cooperative Studies (CCLCS) – Trinidad and Tobago

Champions of Worker Education: Elma Francois Institute for Research and Debate (EFIRD) at  Cipriani College of Labour & Cooperative Studies (CCLCS) – Trinidad and Tobago

Organisational Profile: Interview with Akins Vidale – coordinator of EFIRD, labour studies lecturer and Ian Daniel – Head of Department of Labour Studies at CCLCS

Akins Vidale (AV) and Ian Daniel (ID) speak to Erna Curry (EC) at IFWEA Secretariat on video call about the evolution of EFIRD, the impact and value of worker’s education and the challenges of Caribbean workers in the region. Calling for a redefining of education and solidarity, they explain the aims of the 1st Biennial Caribbean Workers’ Forum in August.

Can you tell us about the Elma Francois Institute for Research and Debate (EFIRD) and Cipriani College of Labour & Cooperative Studies (CCLCS)?

AV: Part of our strategic plan at the College is to revitalize, or revamp, our teaching and learning component, and one of the weaknesses we identified was in the area of research, and so just over a year ago we re-established our research institute.  We made sure that this time we did a few things a little differently.  So our focus is to have the college identified as the hub for information to support the work of both trade unions, credit unions and cooperatives for our key stakeholders. So that is really is what our focus has been so far. ID: And importantly one of the things that that we are trying to do through Elma Francois is to connect our stakeholders by inviting them to have a voice, and not just be us speaking down to our stakeholders.

What are the focus themes of research? AV: Social protection / pensions – What we have focused on a lot this year has been the question of pensions. In the Caribbean in particular one of the things is that we have started to see is a clear erosion in social protections for workers, and one of the things that has been affected the most perhaps, is post retirement lifestyle – and the kind of quality of life that people expect to experience after retirement, and one of the ways to guarantee that is having a healthy pension. And because we’ve gone so much into contract work, much like the rest of the world, you see a general erosion in how pensions are organised.

We have moved from defined benefit to defined contribution pensions which doesn’t guarantee a sustainable income at that point in time and most trade unions, they are not trained  – because you have these reports being done by actuaries and so on and they not coming to the pension committees. We are not even seeing the reports on the performance of the particular pension funds. So this is one of the things that we really focused on this year and we are hoping that we can over the next year or so, continue to train a few more trade unionists to be more effective as pension committee members to ensure that they can give to their members, the best kind of representation possible.

Legislation / Venezuelan migration – We are looking at legislation in terms of the Venezuelan migration issue because we are the closest Caribbean island to Venezuela. So we have a crisis, and you know the situation in Venezuela – what has happened is that Trinidad and Tobago has become a port, if you will, of entrance for a number of persons who are looking to seek economic refugee status. We’ve had to deal with that because in any circumstance where you have migrants coming into a work environment, there’s always a possibility for exploitation, there’s a possibility for changes in how people see work, there’s a possibility for you then engaging in poor practices that go against what we’ve established and what we’ve worked hard for. You want to ensure that it won’t exploit these persons who are coming into the country, and you want to protect your own workers at the same time – because what is happening is that because these persons are in a desperate situation, some employees are taking advantage of that. Then you are having nationals now that’s being denied jobs because there’s somebody else who they can get to do the job cheaper.

Research responses and developing the research agenda – AV: So those are the kind of things that we’ve been doing. We’ve been responding to some of the issues as they arise – we’ve only been around for a year. Behind the scenes we’ve also been coming up with our research agenda which is going to be probably ready by the end of the year, and the conference which is part of that exercise. We’ve also started training core members of our staff at the college in policy development, because if you are going to talk transformation, particularly with legislation – you have to understand the whole policy route – the connection between policy and legislation. So we have to have people who are trained in it.  So that when we do these sessions with the different administrations, regardless of who is in government office, we have people who are skilled and trained to represent workers and represent a position – an organised position from the population, coming from a mass of people.

EC: We see this reflected globally, the divisiveness that arises between the country’s workers and migrant workers, and the pressure on the labour movement to organise and educate to their needs, as well as dealing with the impact of contract and casual work.

ID: What we are also finding is that there are social dimensions to the issue as well and it doesn’t stay contained to issues of work – it goes out into the general public and you start having these, well as a consequence of the divisions, you start having the development of really extreme positions relative to immigrants you know that defy logic, but it becomes a visceral kind of response to a group of people who are relatively easy to identify on the street.

Can you tell us about the education programmes at Cipriani College of Labour & Cooperative Studies, and the impact of the education on your student body? ID: The College is 52 years old, it was established as a kind of community college focusing on labour studies, and training people who come from trade unions – there was a secondary kind of goal to  educate people who had not had a chance in standard education. From there the college grew to include cooperative studies as a necessary institution of working class people. From that now we’ve grown into programmes such as human resource management, occupational safety, health and the environment, security and emergency management. We have started giving bachelor degrees and associate degrees, so we’ve kind of grown out of the community college idea and, you know, becoming almost a fully-fledged university.

Impact of education: access -The impact continues to be on workers who have not actually benefitted from the standard educational system, who probably never saw themselves as being in tertiary education. So we have a large number of working adults who are coming in on a part-time basis for education, and we have a fairly small youth cohort as well. The impact is incredible because what you having is people who without us would never dream of having a degree or an associate degree.

Impact on development of workers’ family – While we do have an impact on their career opportunities, what is really staggering is the impact it has on the family, because what you see now is that the trajectory of family development changes. We’ve had intergenerational student intake: parents come, their children come, third generations come to the institution. Sometimes we’ve had two generations of the same family in the college at the same time. So it’s empowering people as individuals, and then when you look at the trade unions and cooperative leadership, you will see that we have actually educated a large number of the people in these unions as well, so while we’ve not measured the impact on the institutions, we know it’s there.

AV: To add, even our current sitting Minister of Labour is a graduate, an alumni of the college! Yeah, we have in fact had significant impact. What we’ve also seen interestingly, is that many companies have started to send their human resource managers and personnel to the college for them to be better understand the industrial relation issues a lot better, so that there are a lot less errors at the workplace. What we’ve also seen is that our students now come with Masters in Business Administration (MBA’s). While at one point most of these students at the college would would not have thought of coming tertiary level education, now our students who have done Master’s level and are coming back to do our programmes, because of the benefits in the workplace that manifest to the jobs that they have.

We also have a number of lawyers who attend because we have a stand alone Industrial Court in Trinidad and Tobago, that court is unique in the Caribbean in many regards, and so there’s an opportunity for lawyers as well, even though some of them represent the companies, they also practice at that court – but practicing at that court – it’s shaped after civil court. So the rules are a little different to the magistrate’s court, and in particular it focuses on one key maximum that is natural justice. So that the burden of proof and the evidence and the arguments you have to put forth in the Industrial Court, is not exactly the same as in the magistrate court, so that they have to now come to us to begin to understand how to argue a case in front of the Industrial Court, and so we’ve seen that as well you know.

Mixed student body – So we are having classes we have a certain mixes: we have human resource managers, you have lawyers, you have people with MBAs,  and then you have persons who haven’t been to school for 20 years, sitting in the middle of all of that, it really is a fantastic dynamic –  at times it is challenging there’s no question about that  – but the college I think, is poised in a good place and we’re starting to see, and people are coming to realisation that the college is a principal component or principal rather in the industrial level environment.

Can you give us a picture of the context of work in Trinidad and Tobago, what do women workers and youth workers experience? ID: In one word unemployment, or in some instances underemployment.  Currently we are in what is described as a recession, and so the women and young workers in particular, are being targeted by the reduction in employment and also retrenchment. So what we are seeing is an incredibly large pool of young people who go for years without being employed and you are also seeing as a consequence of that – efforts to exploit this large group of people who struggle for incomes, creating unorthodox methods of employment, calling things ‘entrepreneurship’ when all it is, is really the effort to get labour at as cheap a price as possible. You are having a large group of people who are falling outside of standard employment relationships and therefore being placed in precarious conditions, especially when the social safety net is just not tight enough to secure the work.

AV: What is also interesting with the makeup of our economy, is that we have not been transforming in the way that we should.  So we’re 2019 marching into the 20th century (laughs), so a lot of the employers have not upgraded their systems and we have a lot of the jobs being in the service industry, so there’s a lot of low scale employment because employers are not changing how they do things.  Our manufacturing sector is relatively small, our energy sector – although it accounts for the majority of the income – is in fact one the smaller employers as a sector. So you have the largest income being your smallest employer, and the largest employer right now is in fact the service industry – you are looking at for instance fast food restaurants, working at hotels, working at retail establishments, and that’s where the bulk of the work is.

Future of work – When you talk about future of work for example, when overnight a company realises a particular type of business or a retail business is no longer viable and they switch over – there’s no discussion – and that’s what we trying to push – there’s no discussion nationally at this time about how do we ensure that these workers are retooled, so that when this transition takes place that they are still employable, you have got to ask.

 Survival and activism – So those are the kind of challenges workers are facing, and most workers right now are faced with fundamental challenges of just surviving, because underemployment is a problem – a lot of people are on contract. So when we talk about activism and people coming out in the streets and so on, sometimes you may think its apathy, but it’s not just apathy it’s really just people are trying to survive. You ask a young mother who is a single parent to come out and protest and demonstrate, but then she has children to take care of, they not going to get take time off with pay, so there’s all these considerations – it’s a very complex challenge that we have. We are not really seeing at a national discussion level, the kind of dialogue necessary for us to grapple with and transform some of these things, that’s why we trying to intervene at this point in time.

ID: Growth of the gig economy – What we are also seeing is the growing acceptance of the gig economy which is wonderful work you know, but you are seeing young people working two or three jobs in the service industry, and so as Akins says, call them out for any kind of action, they can’t because they have to go to the next job. It becomes even difficult to obtain an education to improve one’s value on the market because you have another job to go to, and there are no benefits, no social protection connected to these jobs.

How does the Elma Francois Institute for Research and Debate (EFIRD) and Cipriani College of Labour & Cooperative Studies (CCLCS) work with trade unions? ID:  Through education – For the most part what we’ve done is educate members of trade unions in our standard programmes. So we had a facility at one point in time where the state workers could come and do a two year programme, some used to come and do a short ten week programme, but basically our impact is in people almost self-selecting to come in and do our standard programme, and then we hope that these are the people who would go in the positions of leadership. Recently what we tried to do is to move in a different direction and start looking at shorter programmes, more specifically targeting means of individual institutions I have worked with a few trade unions in relation to this, but Elma Francois is the effort now to change the conversation completely.

AV: Through engagement –  What we’ve been able to do is that we’ve been able to improve some of the relations with the trade union movements over the last year or so, because sometimes you get caught up in busy work and we don’t think that doing the job that we actually doing is busy work but it can’t be, because you can lose sight of the overall objective by just going through the paces and becoming mechanical with what you do  So we’ve broken that mold a little bit by introducing the Elma Francois institute into the mix, so we now engaging with trade unions on a one on one basis. So when we have activities now outside of the education, outside of the formal classroom environment, we’re getting participation and we have some gaps I mean we are not saying that we are perfect at this point, but we definitely are much further along now than we were a year ago. ID: Than we have ever been.

AV:  Through research – Another important contribution to the movement are not just trade union but cooperatives and credit unions as well – is that finances are a challenge for them, one: a lot of these organisations are voluntary, so that means that you not necessarily going to get all the time – for instance all the qualifications necessary to drive a particular type of activism and a particular type of response. What we really want to do and present ourselves as I said before, as a hub for that research, so we can have the college – function almost as the education department for some trade unions who don’t have those resources. Where we offer for example the gaps in the education, in the Industrial Relations legislation – we can take lead as the academics, as the intelligence here, and we can take lead and present to the trade union movement research: these are some policies that we ought to discuss, these are some directions that we ought to discuss, these are the challenges that you are having with this piece of legislation – let’s know who constituted it and what changes ought to be made. So then we will shape and frame and so on and you know my assigned politics basically right is to get the ideas completed, and send it back and using our technocrats who have the current kind of consciousness, to now work on or on behalf of the mass of the working people! ID: And one of the other things that is on the agenda, is to close the distance between trade unions and cooperatives and credit unions, and see if we can’t get them to marry each other, because they are both essentially the same movement, a collective movement of the working class people.

Can you tell us about the 1st Biennial Caribbean Workers Forum?

 AV: The conference comes from our internal discussions and interactions with the trade unions, as well and the cooperatives. One of the challenges that we have, is that we have not had in the Caribbean, since maybe in the 1960s, a clear analysis of where we are. One of these things, some of us in conversations we would lament, for example in Trinidad and Tobago in 2012 was the 50th anniversary of Independence and there is no discussion on the state of the nation and on the new vision, where – which direction are we going to  – there’s none of that! Instead we are caught up in vacuous politics, really, that is more focused on party politics, who’s in government and those kinds of things. We are not really focused on people- centered development, we’re not discussing that, we are not discussing the kind of society that we have, or the kind of society that we want.

If you ask the average person are you happy or not most people have grouses, people in the barber or the hairdresser, or you go in the taxi, you would hear people complaining people are grousing, which is good but then what? If the conversation is not constructive, then all you doing really is making noise. So as an academic institution we felt that all this noise presented an opportunity for us to intervene, to isolate noise into useful components. So by trying to extract the usefulness from that noise I think we going to be able to set up a platform for the workers – for the only people now to have their own agenda for how they see development in the region, because development now is driven externally in large part, particularly for small economies like ours – it’s driven externally. I remember being in conversation, I have to tell people that Davos (World Economic Forum) is a real place, that Davos is a real thing. – there’s no imaginary hand that is guiding the markets and guiding the economy – they are real people who sit around in rooms and come up with policy, and determine whether you going to pay 10 dollars or 60 dollars per barrel of oil – those things are not happening just by some arbitrary market forces.

Theme: Wealth, Productivity and Social Protection –  An Evolution of the 21st century Caribbean Economy and the Role of Labour – So how are we then in the Caribbean – what discussions and what dialogue are we having for us to counter that – the term ‘globalisation’ it’s kind of brow beaten. We felt that we needed to drill down to what do we mean when we say globalisation?  What are we talking about, and using quite frankly a Marxist interpretation of the scenario, we felt that we focus on the economic aspects – which we think, will feed into a number of other things. We are not saying that it is only tool that we could have used, but that’s the tool that we used.  So we came up with Wealth, Productivity and Social Protection – The Evolution of the 21st century Caribbean Economy and the Role of Labour and Its Institutions

When we talk about Wealth, Productivity and Social Protection – all we’re actually talking about is the new dynamic in the new global environment.  So we talk about wealth generation, lots of countries are talking about diversifying economies – but what we really want to be talking is about redistribution of wealth because it’s not for us in the Caribbean. Trinidad and Tobago for example: at one point we were cocoa, then we were sugar, then we were cocoa again, then we were gas,  then we were oil, and then –  we have a history of diverse products and diverse sectors leading the economy.

  • The whole question is not diversification – the problem is that it’s the same people who are involved in the wealth generating components of the economy, regardless of what the economy is doing. So if you want transformation, what you need is more people involved at that productive level, and wealth generating level of the economy. That leads to that question of productivity – which is a misnomer, might be the correct thing to say -because we talk about productivity but it’s only 15% of the workforce that’s actually involved in activity that produces anything.
  • The majority of the workers don’t produce anything, they are in service industry, they don’t generate wealth – so they don’t transform something into something else that creates wealth – like buying and selling. So when we talk productivity in the general sense it is really incorrect – or an oversimplification of a much more complex situation. And then you get into discussions about how lazy workers are – lazy workers are unproductive and that’s why we’re not were not producing. When they mean producing they merely talking about profit line, then they saying we not making enough profit because you’re not working hard enough – and so if you work harder then we make more profit. But more profit does not necessarily mean that we will then pay you more, it just means that we’ll be able to say that we have a good workforce, and that’s the kind of conversations that we are having!
  • And then it is the question of Social protection – which is linked to the second part, when we talk about productivity, and we talk about wanting to increase the productivity of workers, you have to have a discussion on how do we then protect workers from exploitation, especially in the Caribbean context where we are a post-slavery society, where we are in a post-indentured society – where we have concrete experiences of what happens when you put profit above individuals – and once profits and money is driving your economy it’s driving how you do things and why you do things, then exploitation of workers becomes easy, and justification for it becomes easy, and acceptance of it becomes easy, and that’s where we are. For a lot of people, even workers accept the exploitation of workers and I mean, workers even tell other workers you should be happy you have a job, just be happy that you employed, just be happy that you have a job – it doesn’t matter what the job brings to your quality of life. So we have to try switch the conversation to discuss concretely what is peoples’ quality of life, that’s what your job is supposed to be.
  • You know I was in a meeting yesterday afternoon and I asked a question – because this was a group of workers and they were arguing exactly that – about how workers perform and I said to them: if you each tomorrow morning were a position took care of your mortgage completely, to buy groceries  – for the rest of your life you have money in your pockets to entertain your family and so on  – will you go to work the next morning? And they all laughed and said no, so why you going to work? So your work environment contributes absolutely nothing to your life, other than money required for you to have a life, and that disconnect between the world of work and your world – everything else that’s the rest of your life – is in fact partly people’s discontent at the workplace, because they don’t see it as necessarily directly connected to their quality of life or enhancing it.

All of our themes then have come out of that – so we’ve positioned it trying to use it as economics and labour just to focus it on our constituents, and so focus on world of work – that is really what the essence of the conference is.

Who attends the conference?  Trade unionists who are professionals, who are on the ground as well, workers who are non – unionised, companies who have also registered concerns –  who are human resource practitioners and labor relations officers within the companies –  so we getting commitments from them.  We have persons who belong to other regional labour institutions who are coming as academics as well – maybe 90% of presenters are in fact practicing academics at different institutions. It is really us changing the concept of what labour is – so we using the term labour not to mean blue collar working class people necessarily but labour to mean an alternative form of development, or that different consciousness. We working on the issue of consciousness as the key driver to determine who comes and who doesn’t come to the conference. So employers who are looking at down the road and building relations they are interested and they’ve committed to coming.

So we have persons from Suriname, Curacao, Grenada, Guyana, Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados –and few other territories, we are trying to ensure that it’s as broad as possible. We have a few persons from the USA coming to present as well and we still looking on and hopeful that some of our colleagues from the UK coming because there are quite a number of persons of the Caribbean diaspora that is in the UK, who are in key positions in those movements, and we hoping some have the ability to come to the conference, however we were unable to get UK participation because of the political situation.

What is the value of education – and how is it linked to solidarity action? ID: The value of education depends on what the education is – education without an ideological stance is dangerous, and what you find is that people think that education without an ideological stance, actually doesn’t have an ideological stance, it does! The education of today is the product of neo-liberalism, and so you have your standard universities and their business schools accept that what they are teaching is truth, and there is no alternative there. So what I found is that I have people in a classroom and they can’t, they don’t even question the concept of profit – how was profit created, how was profit distributed, I’ve had people tell me straight up the owner of the business deserves all the profit.

What I look as the benefit of our education is that we challenge those ideas – we give that alternative view – it doesn’t necessarily mean that the student will accept it, but we are hoping that it creates the possibility that our students will be more critical about society, more critical about institutions, and become part of other institutions that could bring some kind of balance to the discourse, to the debates, to the policy development being done today.

AV: I’m happy you asked us that question because we are doing a joint paper for the conference on exactly that! The focus of the paper is actually going to use Michel Foucault’s question of power, because what is happening when we talk about education and consciousness – is that so many things have become normative that people don’t question them. Part of our education has to be to dissecting those things that people think are normative – that they accept, and they don’t know where it where it has come from but you just accept that there are some people who should have and others that shouldn’t.  You just accept that vagrancy is part of life, that there should be people sleeping on the streets, or you just accept that domestic violence is part of life you know – so you really can’t help women who are affected because that’s inside of the house – so how does the government respond, how does anyone else respond because that’s in your house, that’s your personal business.

And we’ve accepted a lot of things about our quality of life that we don’t challenge, and education has to do that, education at its core has to be to challenge the environment. As academics – it is equally important for us to understand the world, as it is for us to try and change the world.

So it’s not just analysis in a vacuum, it is what are we doing to change and so our education and when we engage in education… our classrooms at college, have to be different than any other institution – they have to be because we’re not just trying to get people a better job, we’re not just trying to get you to have a better income, we’re not just trying to get you a to be able to get promotion – what we’re trying to do is to get you to be part of something where your quality of life can improve. If you don’t understand the things that connect us at that level, then you not going to be able to get into solidarity movements and forever changing your profile picture to some colour on Facebook, and in solidarity and nothing happens.

  • The name of the paper is: “The process of unlearning: A case for the formal education of the trade union movement.” We will have audio of all papers presented at the Conference on You Tube soon.

Solidarity – Let’s look at a concrete example of solidarity. We had an example very recently we’ve had these movements or these instances of genocide, these instances of absolute brutality whether be by nature or by man. But the Notre Dame Cathedral in France burns and the solidarity that was demonstrated by that group, to actually go into their pockets and spend money and find themselves in France – because this is a major monument – how could this happen? But when it’s us we seemed not to be moved beyond some sympathy, and that really is not what solidarity was, and we have to teach our experiences. When you talk about Che Guevara, most people only understand Che Guevara as far as Cuba, but they don’t understand Che Guevara throughout all of South America, they don’t understand Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in Africa and the work they would have done on the continent.  We just did a film on Ulric Cross – who was a veteran of the Second World War, was part of a very important movement along with people like CLR James and George Padmore had been part of the Pan African Congress, which eventually led to the independence of several African nations and he was an advisor to President Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and President Julius Nyerere in Tanzania.

So we have to see that is what solidarity is, when you put yourself physically, so that we can stand side by side, which is what the song says right, it’s side by side – it’s not this virtual distance. The system we are dealing is individualistic, so there’s this underlying individualism that we have to counter when we try to do things and engage in solidarity. That is a major challenge that we have, particularly among the younger generation which is exposed a lot more. It’s not that it did not exist all the time, it’s just that their exposure is heightened and magnified –because 5 years ago we did not have Facebook live, 10 years ago we did not have Facebook, 20 years ago we didn’t have access to the Internet in the way we do now.

So there is an entire generation that has grown up connecting with everybody without being next to everybody, so they more connected than ever before but they not really connected. EC: Connected but more dehumanised in some way. AV: Exactly, and what we have to do – it’s not a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water, it’s how do we embrace what is there – and try to get another generation to see what to live their consciousness in a way that we would in the 1980s and 1970s. To see that even though you are more pre-occupied now, it doesn’t mean that your fundamental condition has changed.

ID:  And that’s why we have to change our definition of education, that’s why we have Elma Francois, we need to come out of the classroom and meet people where they are, and try to speak their language or at least give them the opportunity to speak what they know – because we go around assuming that young people know nothing – without even recognising that once we do that, we become part of the problem? So we really need to redefine education, and then we need to redefine solidarity as well,  because many of our practitioners of solidarity believe that solidarity exists within the confines of their institution, of their organization, that it happens in the confines of the space that they occupying.  What we need to do is to create solidarity across institutions that can connect with the mass of the people, in issues that affect the mass of the people.  So it’s a very intriguing game that we’re playing, where the field has been tilted, because one particular view of the world is ascendant, and allowing very little critical material to come out. Akins talked about Che Guevara, but for most people Che Guevara change is a brand on a t-shirt, on a belt buckle on a poster, and they have no idea who he is but it looks cool you know, so let’s drink a beer with his face on it and then we’re in solidarity.

AV: Thank you for giving us this opportunity, you know this is what solidarity is – this exchange, its rebuilding relationships, meeting people, doing the hard work on the ground and sharing ideas. As you said we not as different as people may think – many of our issues are exactly the same, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, and by sharing we can perhaps see some of the things you’ve tried, we can share some of what we tried.