Labor Force and Industrial Relations

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

The labor force in 1985 consisted of 463,900 persons, or about 39 percent of the total population. Men outnumbered women almost two to one in the registered work force, although women dominated the informal service sector, where they were not recorded. Nearly half of the work force, 49 percent, were classified under "other services," which included many self-employed or own-account workers. Construction was the largest employer of productive labor (18 percent), followed by manufacturing (15 percent), agriculture (11 percent), and transportation and communications (7 percent).

Unemployment remained Trinidad and Tobago's principal economic and social problem in the late 1980s. Unemployment worsened steadily throughout the decade from a low of 8 to 9 percent in the early 1980s to a high of 17 percent in 1987. Trinidad and Tobago used a different method to calculate its unemployment rate from that used by the United States, however, in an attempt to compensate for the high levels of underemployment and disguised unemployment (see Labor Force and Industrial Relations, ch. 2). Women and urban youth faced higher levels of unemployment. In 1985 youths 15 to 19 years of age suffered a 39-percent unemployment rate, whereas those 20 to 24 years of age experienced a 28-percent unemployment rate. The capital-intensive structure of the economy meant that efforts to alleviate high unemployment would require a structural or long-term approach.

Organized labor has played a central role in the country's political economy since the 1920s. Strikes were curtailed somewhat after Prime Minister Williams enacted the controversial Industrial Stabilization Act of 1965, which granted the government the authority to resolve disputes with the Industrial Court. In contrast to most other Commonwealth Caribbean nations, trade unions in Trinidad and Tobago did not directly affiliate with political parties. Nonetheless, unions strongly influenced major issues, such as the policy of nationalization of the major sectors of the economy in the 1970s. Approximately 40 percent of the labor force was unionized and was represented by more than 100 official trade unions. The OWTU, comprising some 16,000 members, was the most prominent union and was frequently at the forefront of labor's demands for national control over production. Three-quarters of all organized labor were members of ten other major trade unions, including the important ATSE/FWTU. Most of the country's labor organizations were affiliated with the main labor umbrella organization, the Trinidad and Tobago Labour Congress, or the more radical offshoot, the Council of Progressive Trade Unions.

The power of trade unions declined in the 1980s as the recession provided labor with less for which to negotiate. Union demands had continued to grow in the 1970s, even after one of their long-time goals, the nationalization of the major industries, had been met. Trade unions were responsible for large gains in real wages during the 1970s, but as these advances eventually outstripped output, productivity declined. Labor disputes decreased in numbers by the 1980s after the relative labor turbulence of the 1970s. For example, in 1981 industrial disputes involving 2,588 workers accounted for the loss of only 51,389 workdays, compared with 36,974 employees losing 777,389 workdays in 1975. As with real wages in general, minimum wage rates declined during the mid- to late 1980s.

More about the Economy of Trinidad and Tobago.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress