A fillip to flexi-work
EIGHTEEN MONTHS ago, in lamenting the limited use of flexi-work arrangements two years after a law that gives firms, and their employees, greater freedom to determine when, and how, workers go to their jobs, we suggested that the Government should, perhaps, lead by example.
The suggestion may not be entirely moot. For even now, flexible work schemes remain a limited part of Jamaica’s labour market. There is little doubt, nonetheless, that workplace flexibility, including remote employment, will be among the enduring legacies of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is important, therefore, that stakeholders in the labour market, including policymakers, urgently begin a dialogue on how the economy can extract the greater value from the new approaches to work that companies have been forced to adopt, or adapt to, over the past two and half months.
This discussion, though, cannot afford the meandering two decades it took to arrive at the 2014 amendments of the several bits of legislation that regulated businesses and working hours, and the compensation of employees. Essentially, the changes allowed for the 40-hour workweek to be spread over seven days, rather than five, and for extra-time to be paid after a worker had completed 40 hours, instead of after eight hours on a workday. Further, an employee and his manager could agree to a 12-hour shift to the 40-hour week.
These developments offered two significant advantages to firms and their employees. The sevenday workweek, thus not having to pay for overtime until the employee completes 40 hours of work, potentially gave companies greater flexibility to structure their operations over the seven days, without facing higher upfront labour costs. Employees, on the other hand, in agreement with their managers, could structure their 40-hour week to give themselves more time away from their offices.
It was hoped that these shifts would lead to significant changes in how business operated, including later opening hours, thus proving not only a boon to consumers, but to labour productivity, economic activity and, ultimately, job creation. Six years after the law, there is no immediately available data on how well the legislation has met its intent. The anecdotal evidence suggests that it has fallen substantially short.
Indeed, relatively few firms, except for those linked directly into the global service economy, have embraced the flexi-work system. Fewer still have employees who regularly work remotely. On both counts, Jamaica trails far behind developed countries.
A 2016 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that threequarters of European workers had access to some work-schedule flexibility. The proportion ranged from 50 per cent in Greece to 90 per cent “in the Netherlands and Nordic countries”. Their work flexibility, the report concluded, helped to explain “how Nordic countries maintain high levels of female employment without a large gender gap in average weekly working hours”.
Other analyses suggest that by 2017, over three per cent of the US population, or nearly five million people, worked remotely – an increase of more than 40 per cent during a five-year period.
These numbers were still climbing when COVID-19 scuttled global economic activity. However, most who were able to hold their jobs either worked from home or had flexible office arrangements. Jamaica was no exception – and not only in the private sector. The island is among the 136 countries where, by the World Bank’s count, some public-sector employees, because of COVID-19, engage in home-based work.
Jamaica must now do the rigorous analyses to determine what, if any, productivity gains it achieved from the flexi-time and work-from-home arrangements, and what adjustments have to be made to its infrastructure and labour market to enhance the value of these schemes. Indeed, in some cases, firms may have to forgo normal contractual exclusivity with employees, who, in turn, may have to surrender some of what is traditionally expected from employers. This new normal, if pursued, will also insist on government policy that facilitates the buildout of a digital network, and an education system geared to making Jamaicans IT-literate.
The analysis, though, must not be limited to calculating the obvious economic gains, and the cost of achieving them. It must take in, too, the saving of reduced pressures on the national infrastructure, including roads and public transportation, if more people work from home or have flexible arrangements. We had a glimpse of this over the 10 weeks.