FRANKLY SPEAKING: Govt should insist on fairness
If the present Democratic Labour Party (DLP) administration were to demit office tomorrow, there is little that is positive for which it would be remembered.
From inception it would appear that this crop of DLP leaders was looking for something to do that would create a legacy. The free bus rides for schoolchildren and the free summer camps did not generate the type of social engineering that would qualify as legacy making.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s there were so many things wrong that needed fixing that it was easy to establish a legacy.
Grantley Adams was responsible for putting a raft of labour legislation in place that cemented his legacy. Errol Barrow’s signal achievement – free secondary and tertiary education – has placed him indelibly in the hearts of generations of Barbadians. Later Tom Adams secured his legacy with the Tenantry Freehold Purchase Act, which could be considered one of the most revolutionary pieces of social legislation since Emancipation.
Without realizing it, this administration has cemented a positive legacy with the passage of the Employment Rights Act. Minister of Labour Senator Dr Esther Byer Suckoo should be justly proud of this achievement. When she speaks about this piece of legislation, she exudes the pride that says, “I have done something worthwhile that would impact the lives of the average worker in a positive way”.
Unfortunately, the same administration that put this law on the books is now shamefully allowing statutory corporations to ignore its provisions. The act, out of an abundance of caution, at Section 51 states: “This act does not bind the Crown but applies to statutory corporations.”
In effect this means that the Employment Rights Act does not apply to ministries and departments in the general Public Service but statutory corporations are bound by it in much the same way as private sector employers.
Government has so poorly managed the affairs of state that many statutory boards that depend on central Government for funding are finding it extremely difficult to pay their bills, including wages.
These statutory boards are still required to carry out their mandates with less financial resources. In order to achieve their cut-back targets, some of them have been placing staff on a three-day work week when their contracts for a five-day week expire, despite the provisions of the act. Part vi of the act deals with unfair dismissal, and it states, in part, at Section 26 (1): “For the purposes of this part an employee is dismissed by his employer where
(a) the contract under which he is employed is terminated by the employer, whether with or without notice;
(b) he is employed under a contract for a fixed term and that term expires without being renewed under the same contract.”
Subparagraph (b) requires the employer to re-engage an employee who works on a fixed term contract on the same terms when it expires. Failing that, the employee would be unfairly dismissed and, in these present circumstances, re-employed under a new contract of service.
I am of the view that employees of statutory boards who find themselves in such a situation should be entitled to compensation for their years of service.
Having put this revolutionary piece of social legislation on the books to force private sector employers and statutory boards to treat their employees with a measure of fairness, Government should not allow itself to be seen as turning a blind eye to statutory bodies that fail to comply.
The Stuart administration has a golden opportunity to lead by example by doing the right thing, even when faced with the current economic situation. Sacrificing employees at the lowest level who can least take care of themselves should never be an option for a caring administration.
It should send a clear signal to the management of statutory boards that it will accept nothing less than best practice, and that it will not tolerate any board taking steps to circumvent the provisions of the law that might appear to be inconvenient at this time or indeed at any time.
Using past performance to predict future action, it would appear that Government will continue to place a disproportionate burden on the backs of the poorest of the poor in order to balance the budget.
I will leave the matter of balancing the budget to the economists, but I will continue to speak out against Government’s penchant for breaking the rules with impunity. The Employment Rights Act is not the only piece of labour legislation that the powers that be have chosen to ignore. Section 13 (11) of the Public Service Act springs readily to mind. It states: No established office in the Public Service shall be allowed to remain vacant for a period of more than one year except
(a) permission to allow the vacancy is granted by the Governor General on the advice of the Service Commission; or
(b) the office has been frozen by the minister.
Even with that provision in place, there are many temporary public officers who act in vacant established posts in excess of five years, who now find themselves in much the same position as those employees at statutory boards.
When Government is confronted with a situation where the law is posing a problem, it has three options: obey it, change it or leave office. I know that they will not listen to me, but someone needs to tell the Government that breaking the law is never an option.
• Caswell Franklyn is a trade unionist and social commentator.