Jamaica is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. In national elections in 2016, the Jamaica Labour Party led by Prime Minister Andrew Michael Holness won 32 of the 63 seats in the House of Representatives. The party maintained a majority through by-elections in 2017, 2018, and 2019. International and local election observers deemed the elections transparent, free, and fair but noted isolated incidents of violence leading up to and on election day. Observers deemed the by-elections transparent, free, fair, and peaceful.
The prime minister has general authority over the Jamaican Defence Board and as chairman of the board has responsibility for defense-related matters including command, discipline, and administration. He is the de facto minister of defense. The Ministry of National Security is the bureaucratic home of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) and directs policy over the security forces. The Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) is the country’s police force. It has primary responsibility for internal security and has units for community policing, special response, intelligence gathering, and internal affairs. When the prime minister and Parliament declare a state of emergency, the JDF has arrest authority and operational partnership alongside the JCF. The Passport, Immigration, and Citizenship Agency has responsibility for migration. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included reports of arbitrary and unlawful killings by government security forces; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons and detention facilities; corruption by officials; and forced child labor. The law criminalizes consensual same-sex activity between men, but the government did not enforce the law during the year.
The government took some steps to investigate and prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses. Nonetheless, there was a general sense that there was not full and swift accountability for all officials alleged to have committed human rights abuses.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, generally effective judicial protection, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom.
The Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica continued to bar certain lyrics and music videos, including songs referring to violent sex; violence against women, children, and other vulnerable persons; or questions of race. Such lyrics were expunged prior to broadcast.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
Abuses of these freedoms often involved the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community. In September officials in Montego Bay denied use of the Montego Bay Cultural Center for an LGBTI festival, “Montego Bay Pride.” Officials stated that the cultural center was a building under the management of a government agency and should not be used to hold a function to promote same-sex marriage, which is inconsistent with constitutional mandates. A press release by the Montego Bay Pride group claimed that after the ban, alternative venues either cancelled prior arrangements or refused to rent space “at a reasonable rate.” Event organizers further described being mobbed by angry vendors shouting homophobic slurs and threating violence. Local police advised the situation was so volatile that the police could not provide security for the event without extraordinary measures and expense, effectively forcing the group to cancel the festival.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government handles each potential asylum seeker administratively on an individual basis. Through registration the government can grant Jamaican citizenship to those with citizenship in a commonwealth country.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: After the 2016 national elections, the country held by-elections in October 2017, March 2018, and April 2019 to fill seats in Parliament. The Jamaica Labour Party maintained a majority of 33 of the 63 members in the House of Representatives. Observers judged all recent elections to be transparent, free, and fair.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year, and corruption remained a significant problem of public concern. Media and civil society organizations continued to criticize the government for being slow and at times reluctant to prosecute corruption cases.
Corruption: In March Senator Ruel Reid, then minister of education, youth, and information, resigned following allegations of misuse of public funds made by the opposition party’s leadership. Further investigation by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions indicated that key players in the scandal might have breached at least four criminal laws. Reid, along with four others, was arrested in October and charged with several counts of corruption, conspiracy to defraud, and misconduct in a public office.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires that members of Parliament, public officials in prescribed positions, and civil servants earning 3.5 million Jamaican dollars (JMD) ($25,000) or more per year disclose their income, liabilities, and assets annually. There were no reports of noncompliance or that the government sanctioned anyone who failed to disclose.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were cooperative and responsive to their views.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Public Defender investigates abuses of constitutional rights and engages with claimants in a process to seek remediation from the government. The public defender is not authorized to appear in court but may retain attorneys to represent clients on the office’s behalf. The office cannot investigate cases affecting national defense or actions investigable by a court of law. As a commission of Parliament, this organization’s impact depends on the political will associated with the case. Parliament can ignore the commission’s findings or decline to act on recommended actions. This limited the overall efficacy of the organization.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The rape of a woman, legally defined as forced penile penetration of the vagina, is illegal and carries a penalty of 15 years to life imprisonment. A criminal who commits sexual assault through anal penetration of either a male or female, however, can only be punished by a maximum of 10 years in prison. This strict definition created wide discrepancies between cases that otherwise had similar elements of sexual assault. The government tried to enforce the law effectively with respect to the rape of a woman but was less effective in cases involving the rape of a man.
Married women do not have the same rights and protections as single women. The law criminalizes spousal rape only when one of the following criteria is met: the act occurs after legal separation or court proceedings to dissolve the marriage; the husband is under a court order not to molest or cohabit with his wife; or the husband knows he has a sexually transmitted disease. Legally, marriage implies sexual consent between husband and wife at all times.
According to estimates by the Jamaican Constabulary Force Statistics and Information Management Unit, there were 432 rape cases in 2018, approximately a 12 percent reduction from 2017. Advocacy groups, however, continued to contend that rape was significantly underreported because victims had little faith in the judicial system and were unwilling to endure lengthy criminal proceedings.
Rape cases continued to occur in gated, all-inclusive resorts on the northern coast, with limited police response. In 2018 a hotel employee entered the hotel room of two foreign women and raped them at gunpoint before being shot by one of the victims. The man escaped from the hotel room but was later arrested after seeking medical assistance at a nearby hospital.
The government operated a Victim Support Unit (VSU) to provide direct support to all crime victims, including crisis intervention, counselling, and legal advocacy. The VSU managed 13 independent parish offices throughout the country, each with its own hotline and staff of trained providers. The VSU coordinated with a network of NGOs capable of providing services such as resiliency counseling and operating shelters. The Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA) provided similar services for children, although both VSU and CPFSA were understaffed and lacked sufficient capacity to provide comprehensive care to the populations they served. There was an insufficient number of shelters in the capital area for women and children, and even fewer available outside the capital area. Police officers and first responders had limited training about services available to crime victims.
Sexual Harassment: No legislation addresses sexual harassment, and no legal remedy exists for victims. Harassment was a common occurrence, regardless of position or gender. Interviews with junior medical providers indicated that almost all had either experienced harassment or knew a colleague who had. A bill outlining sexual harassment, prohibiting related conduct, and providing provisions for the aggrieved to file complaints was brought to committee in Parliament in July. In July the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Information advised schools and training institutions of their obligation to develop comprehensive policies to address sexual harassment.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: Although the law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men, including equal pay for equal work, women encountered discrimination in the workplace and often earned less than men. Domestic workers were particularly vulnerable to workplace discrimination and sexual harassment.
Birth Registration: Every person born in the country after independence in 1962 is entitled to citizenship. Persons outside the country born to or adopted by one or more Jamaican parents, as well as those married to Jamaican spouses, are entitled to citizenship.
Child Abuse: The law bans child abuse in all forms, including neglect. Corporal punishment is illegal; however, it was practiced informally in the home, schools, and children’s correctional facilities, as well as when a child was under state care. The penalty is a potential fine of 250,000 JMD ($1,800) or a prison sentence with hard labor for a period not to exceed three months. The CPFSA stated that despite outreach campaigns, more than 15,000 incidents of abuse were reported in 2018.
The law requires anyone who knows of or suspects child abuse, whether physical or sexual, to make a report to the registry office, with a penalty of up to 500,000 JMD ($3,500) and six months’ imprisonment, or both, for failure to do so.
Informal corporal punishment and other forms of child abuse were prevalent. Estimates from the NGO Jamaicans for Justice showed that 80 percent of children experienced psychological or physical violence administered as discipline, and a similar number had witnessed a violent crime in their home. Physical punishment in schools remained commonplace. The NGO noted that reports of child abuse trended slightly downward during the year.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18, but children may marry at 16 with parental consent.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law criminalizes the commercial sexual exploitation of children and applies to the production, possession, importation, exportation, and distribution of child pornography. It carries a maximum penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 JMD ($3,500). The law prohibits child sex trafficking and prescribes a penalty of up to 30 years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both. There were continued reports of the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
The law criminalizes sexual relations between an adult and a child–male or female–younger than 16 and provides for penalties ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment. Children have fewer legal protections than adults concerning sexual assault. The legal definition of rape is penile penetration of the vagina. A person who commits anal rape of a child is punished by only 10 years in prison. Similar to the situation for women, the distinction created wide discrepancies between cases that had the same element of sexual assault at their core. The risk of sexual assault reportedly was three times higher for children than adults. Cases were widespread and varied, involving children as young as age four.
Law enforcement continued to be implicated in reports of child rape. A police constable was taken into custody following allegations that he raped a 15-year-old girl in protective custody.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
Approximately 500 persons in the country practiced Judaism. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report.
Persons with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, although it does not mandate accessibility standards. The law was not fully implemented. Persons with disabilities continued to encounter difficulties accessing education, employment, health services, communications, transportation, and other services due to the lack of accessible facilities.
Insufficient resources were allocated for persons with disabilities. There were limitations in access to primary school education, although the constitution provides for the right to primary education for all children. There was also a lack of suitably trained faculty to care for and instruct students with disabilities. Postprimary and postsecondary educational services, vocational training, and life skills development opportunities were limited. Health care reportedly was at times difficult to access, especially for persons with hearing disabilities and persons with mental disabilities. Access problems were more pronounced in rural regions, where limited overall funding restricted the government’s ability to make an impact.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual relations and anal sex between men. Physical intimacy between men, in public or private, is punishable by two years in prison, and anal sex between men is punishable by up to 10 years with hard labor. There is no comprehensive antidiscrimination legislation.
The government enforced the law that criminalizes anal sex, or “buggery,” only in cases of sexual assault and child molestation. Officials did not prosecute consensual same-sex sexual conduct between men. The legal definitions of rape and buggery create a phenomenon where, under certain circumstances, segments of the population have unequal legal protection from sexual assault. For example, a man who sexually assaults a woman through penile penetration of the vagina is punishable by 15 years to life in prison. This same act, committed through penile anal penetration, of a woman, child, or man, would be punishable by only up to 10 years in prison. Local human rights advocates contended this was unequal protection under the law.
The law does not extend antidiscrimination protections to LGBTI persons on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics. Furthermore, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stated the law legitimizes violence towards LGBTI persons.
The NGO J-FLAG (formerly Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays) reported that it received a similar number of cases of discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity against LGBTI individuals during the year, compared with previous years. Many of the cases reported during the year occurred in prior years. Underreporting continued to be a problem, as many of the persons who made reports were reluctant to go to police because of fear of discrimination or police inaction. Other NGOs reported hostility towards LGBTI persons including increased screening for transgender persons at airports.
Government agencies were involved in acts of discrimination (see section 2.b. for additional details).
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
Civil society, international organizations, and government officials continued to cite stigma and discrimination as factors contributing to low HIV-treatment coverage. The country’s ban on homosexual acts as part of the Offenses against the Person Act disproportionately affected subpopulations such as men who have sex with men and LGBTI individuals, where HIV infection levels were higher than average. Some individuals with HIV reported difficulty obtaining medical care, to the extent that some delayed seeking medical attention or traveled abroad to receive treatment.
The government continued to collaborate with the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund to address HIV-related stigma and discrimination. Measures included training for health-care providers on human rights and medical ethics; sensitization of lawmakers and law enforcement officials; reducing discrimination against women in the context of HIV; legal literacy; legal services; and monitoring and reforming laws, regulations, and policies relating to HIV. The minister of health and wellness called for the elimination of stigma and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS.
The law prohibits HIV-related discrimination in the workplace and provides some legal recourse to persons with HIV who experience discrimination. In rural or poor urban areas, there was less knowledge of the government services and programming available related to HIV.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form or join independent unions and to bargain collectively. The law does not provide for the right to strike, although the constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Additionally, the law allows all workers to take part, at any appropriate time, in the activities of a trade union of which they are members. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for the Industrial Disputes Tribunal (IDT) to reinstate a worker for unjustified dismissal. The law makes it a criminal offense to prevent or deter a worker from exercising the right to participate in trade union activities or to dismiss, penalize, or otherwise discriminate against a worker for exercising these rights.
Aspects of the law inhibit the ability of some workers to organize. The government defines 10 categories of services as “essential”: water, electricity, health, hospital, sanitation, transportation, firefighting, corrections, overseas telecommunication, and telephone services. Before workers in these categories can legally strike, they must take their dispute to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security and attempt to settle the dispute through negotiation. The International Labor Organization (ILO) continued to raise concerns that the country’s definition of essential services was too broad. The government prohibits unionizing in export processing zones, which are industrial areas with special tax and trade incentives to attract foreign investment. The ILO expressed concern that penalties may be imposed on workers for their membership and participation in an unregistered trade union. The ILO also expressed concern that the government can carry out inspections and request information about trade union finances at any time.
The law mandates that in the case of doubt or dispute as to whether workers may exercise bargaining rights, the labor and social security minister must conduct a secret ballot requiring that a majority of workers vote. If two or more unions each represent less than 30 percent of workers eligible to vote, the minister grants joint bargaining rights to each of those unions.
The minister of labor and social security may apply through the Supreme Court to curtail an industrial action such as a strike or lockout when the minister determines that the action may be harmful to national security or the national economy, or may have the potential to endanger the lives of a substantial number of persons. The minister refers such cases to compulsory arbitration. The IDT hears cases when management and labor fail to reach agreement, including those involving nonunionized workers.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. Firms and other large employers continued to be able to appeal and delay resolution of their cases for years. While cases should by law be resolved within 21 days, the tribunal took several months to decide most cases. Some cases took longer to resolve due to the complexity of the dispute or delays requested by involved parties. IDT decisions are formal and binding unless challenged specifically on a point of law. Parties may apply for judicial review by the Supreme Court. Penalties were marginally sufficient to deter violations, but large firms allegedly used their influence on the court and the government to shape decisions.
The government generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Worker organizations operated without interference, although the government maintained the right to monitor their activities. While employers generally respected the law prohibiting antiunion discrimination, some labor unions reported that private-sector workers feared management retaliation against unionization. It was not uncommon for private-sector employers to dismiss union workers and rehire them as contractors.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law criminalizes all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The law also prohibits trafficking in persons and penalizes perpetrators with a fine or imprisonment. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. A national task force on trafficking in persons continued outreach to sensitize citizens to forced labor and other trafficking violations, but the government did not effectively enforce the law, and the vast majority of violators were not held criminally accountable.
The country continued to be a source and destination for persons subjected to forced labor, including in domestic work, begging, and the informal sector. Gang members subjected boys to forced criminal activity (see section 7.c.). Foreign citizens were compelled into forced labor aboard foreign-flagged fishing vessels operating in the country’s waters.
The ILO expressed concern over the law’s provision for the imposition of forced prison labor for seafarers in the case of disobedience, neglect of duty, impeding the progress of the voyage, desertion, or absence without leave.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not prohibit all the worst forms of child labor. It provides a minimum age of employment in all sectors. The ILO expressed concern that the use of children for prostitution and the use of children in the trafficking and production of illegal drugs do not appear to be specifically prohibited. The law includes occupational safety and health restrictions for children and limitations on working hours. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties only marginally deterred violations.
The minimum age for general employment is 15, with strict prohibition on employing children younger than 13. The law permits children between ages 13 and 15 to engage in “light work.” While the Ministry of Labour and Social Security does not have an official definition for “light work,” it maintained a list of occupations acceptable for children ages 13 to 15. The government does not have a list of types of hazardous work prohibited for children. Those who legally hire children are not required to keep any records.
The government estimated that more than 53,000 children ages five to 17 years old, an age range in line with ILO standards, were engaged in child labor. Government agencies did not inspect the informal sector, so the number was likely to be underreported. Children worked in farming, fishing, and in public markets. Children also worked as domestic servants in homes or for street work, such as peddling goods, services, begging, and garbage salvaging. Some children were subjected to forced labor in these sectors. There were sporadic reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children. There were also reports of children forced into domestic work. Violent gangs used children for forced begging, as lookouts, as armed gunmen, and as couriers of drugs and weapons.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
Laws and regulations do not prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. There were limited numbers of cases filed for discrimination in employment or occupation during the year, but it was likely these cases were underreported due to strong stigma in the workplace against older women, persons with disabilities, members of the LGBTI community, and persons with HIV/AIDS. Those persons subject to workplace discrimination had little confidence that effective legal recourse was available to them. Although the law requires equal pay for male and female employees, salaries for women lagged behind salaries for men. Persons with disabilities often lacked access to the workplace.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The minimum wage was above the nationally estimated poverty line. Most workers received more than the legal minimum wage, while some minimum-wage earners held two or more jobs.
The law provides for a standard 40-hour workweek and mandates at least one day of rest per week. Employers are required to compensate work in excess of 40 hours per week at overtime rates, a provision most employers respected. The law provides for paid annual holidays. The government did not universally apply the law that restricts workdays to 12 hours or less.
The Occupational Safety and Health Department enforced industrial health and safety standards under ILO guidelines, as appropriate for each industry. It conducted inspections, investigated accidents, warned violators, and gave them a period in which to correct violations. The department took violators to court if they did not correct violations within the given timeframes. The law stipulates penalties and fines, and the minister of labor and social security has the authority to increase any monetary penalty. The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations, and the inspections took place only in the formal sector.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. Insufficient staffing in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Ministry of Finance and Public Service, and Ministry of National Security contributed to difficulties in enforcing workplace regulations. Legal fines or imprisonment were insufficient to deter violations, and the Labour and Social Security Ministry gained compliance in the vast majority of cases by threatening legal action. The ability of defendants to appeal a case repeatedly in the court system dulled the effectiveness of penalties. The law has no provisions that explicitly give workers the ability to remove themselves from hazardous conditions without jeopardy to employment.
In 2017 the Inter-American Development Bank estimated the informal economy generated over 40 percent of GDP. Most violations pertaining to acceptable conditions of work occurred in the informal sector.