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IDT fears require dispassionate debate

Friday, February 22, 2019

Events associated with the ongoing Petrojam scandal have placed the Industrial Disputes Tribunal (IDT) at the centre of a raging debate that is not only thought-provoking, but laced with the potential to inflame passions.

The decision by Petrojam not to pursue a case against Mrs Yolande Ramharrack at the IDT on grounds that the tribunal is worker-centric, sparked the interest of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association, and the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce.

The organisations called on the minister of labour and social security to act on the authority reposed in her by Section 3 (3) of the Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act (LRIDA) and immediately consult with the private sector and other stakeholders to revise the Labour Code before the end of this financial year.

According to the three groups, Petrojam's settlement with Ramharrack highlights the difficulties being experienced by the private sector in any attempt to address breaches of discipline at the workplace or to terminate an employee based on the application of the Labour Relations Code.

The groups are complaining about the high costs associated with bringing cases before the IDT and of unfair decisions based on the “inequitable and one-sided concentration on the strict application of the code procedures and not on the substantive facts of offence”.

This, they insist, results in workers who have breached the company's employee handbook, and in some cases the law, being reinstated or paid huge sums of money in termination settlements.

On Tuesday, the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) described the comments made as an attack on the IDT. Its spokesman on labour and social security, Mr Horace Dalley said the PNP was reminding interest groups involved in the present debate that Clause 2 of the Labour Code set out clearly the philosophy behind the existing arrangements.

It recognised that work is a social right and obligation, and not a commodity; it is to be respected and “dignity must be accorded to those who perform it, ensuring continuity of employment, security of earnings and job satisfaction”.

Further, the PNP “joins the trade union movement in rejecting the manner in which powerful groups are seeking to influence amendments to the law and the code”. Mr Dalley also argued that industrial harmony could only be guaranteed by cooperation and consultation.

The concerns of the private sector were highlighted by Mr Gavin Goffe, a partner in the law firm Myers, Fletcher and Gordon, in a compelling column in this week's Business Observer.

To support his argument, Mr Goffe highlighted three cases in which the IDT ruled against employers, despite the fact that they had very strong evidence of wrongdoing — in one case theft — against the employees they had dismissed.

Most likely, workers will be inclined to support the PNP's position. Afterall, the LRIDA was largely seen as a weapon against perceived unbridled employer abuse of workers, at the time it was passed under the Michael Manley Government in the 1970s.

There is no doubt that this is a very emotive issue. It will require a willingness on both sides to listen and engage in dispassionate dialogue.