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NOT ALL BLACK AND WHITE: Current jobs market a nightmare for workers

Caswell Franklyn

NOT ALL BLACK AND WHITE: Current jobs market a nightmare  for workers

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THE HARSH ECONOMIC ENVIRONMENT that has engulfed this country has created a situation where the available jobs are far outstripped by the number of jobseekers. 

Some might say that the surplus labour has translated into an employers’ paradise. But from where I sit as a practising workers’ representative, the situation is unfolding as a nightmare for workers, particularly those who have been recently employed or those who have finally managed to get a job offer.

Over the last year or so, I have been consulted by many workers who somehow believe that their written job offers or contracts are unreasonable or illegal.

I have found, in a majority of cases, that the workers’ fears were well founded. Sadly, my advice to those workers provided no comfort and only confirmed that they are being exploited. Some of them might be parents who had not seen a pay cheque in a while. They are then confronted with a dilemma: insist on their rights and lose the job; or grin and bear the situation so that they can put food on the table. Invariably, the workers succumb to the parental instinct to provide for their young.

Since the early 1950s, Government ratified certain conventions and put laws in place to protect workers. These laws seem not to be generally known or they are being ignored by unscrupulous employers who know that the laws will not be enforced. In addition, the Employment Rights Act has ushered in a raft of new rights when it was brought into force in 2013. Unfortunately for workers, employers know that the act offers no protection to workers who had been unfairly dismissed and who had been employed for less than one year. That act at section 27 (1) boldly states:

“An employee has the right not to be unfairly dismissed by his employer.”

Worrying trend

However, the act at section 27 (3) then brutally snatches away that right from workers who had not been continuously employed for one year.

Despite these laws, a worrying trend is now taking over in both the public and private sectors.

Employers have been using their dominant positions to impose conditions – on a take it or leave it basis – that are contrary to law. One such example is where employers say to workers that they will be required to work overtime, that they are expected to comply in the interest of the company, and that the company does not pay overtime. On occasion, some of them, including Government agencies, reward overtime work with time off in lieu of wages.

The 1951 Protection of Wages Act provided at section 5 that the amount of wages earned by, or payable to, any worker in respect of any work done by him shall be actually paid to him in legal tender (money). It went on to say that wages paid in any other form shall be illegal, null and void.

A 1975 amendment to that act relaxed those strict conditions of section 5 and allowed employers, at section 13 (1), to compensate workers with monetary wages plus allowances other than monetary allowances. At section 13 (2) the act provided that the allowances referred to in subsection (1) shall –

(a) be of a personal benefit to the worker and his family;

(b) be of a fair and reasonable value; and

(c) not be in the form of noxious drugs and intoxicating liquor.

To my mind, when an employer pays a worker for work actually done, the employer transfers an asset that he owns (whether it is money, a vehicle or housing) to the worker. On the other hand, when compensation is paid with time off in lieu, the employer receives a benefit without paying for it. Time is not an asset owned by the employer, so in effect the employer gets something for nothing.  By whatever name you call it, we are seeing the return of forced labour without compensation.

Caswell Franklyn is the general secretary of Unity Workers Union and a social commentator. Email: [email protected]