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.
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.
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
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.