A fil­lip to flexi-work

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION -

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.

RIG­OR­OUS ANALY­SES

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.

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