China Harbour/union dispute brewing

Highway 2000 project could feel ripple effects

BY BALFORD HENRY Sunday Observer senior reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, December 16, 2012

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A dispute is brewing between China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) and the two major trade unions — the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU), and the National Workers Union (NWU) — which could create industrial relations problems when construction on the North-South link of Highway 2000 starts next year.


On Friday, the two unions wrote to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security seeking its intervention to resolve the main issue of whether CHEC will observe the provisions of the labour agreement adopted by the Joint Industrial Council (JIC) for the building and construction industry. Specifically, they need to know if the Chinese firm will agree to pay workers a 16 per cent end-ofproject bonus.


Their concerns emerged after CHEC refused to pay the bonus to unionised workers who were employed in the construction of the Rio Grande Bridge in St Margaret’s Bay, Portland, which was opened in October.


NWU deputy island supervisor Owen Saunderson explained to the Jamaica Observer that the bonus is paid to permanently employed construction workers because there is no redundancy procedure when a project wraps up, and there is no certainty of re-employment on other projects. The bonus has come to be seen in the sector as a sort of ex-gratia payment.


Both unions want CHEC to follow the precedent set by other foreign contractors including Pihl and Bouygues.


The BITU’s vice-president, Alden Brown, said that all foreign contractors who have done work in Jamaica have observed the JIC agreement because it sets out the local industry standards, but CHEC refuses to do so and only picks out certain provisions with which it is in agreement.


"When we spoke to them about it, they referred us to the National Works Agency (NWA). The NWA referred us back to CHEC and now they have referred us back to the NWA. We can't go on like this, so we have referred the matter to the Ministry of Labour and requested a meeting to resolve the issue," he explained.


This isn’t the only issue that needs to be settled betwen the unions and the Chinese. The employment of skilled Jamaicans on the Highway 2000 project, payment according to JIC rates and recognition of the unions as representatives of the local employees are also on the list.


Brown says the unions expect no dispute over their right to represent the workers who will be employed on the North-South link, because they have already established their presence at other CHEC sites including the Rio Grande Bridge project.


The only uncertainty, he says is the ratio of Jamaicans to imported workers which, has always been 3:1 in favour of locals.


The Sunday Observer sought a response from CHEC some weeks ago and was informed by the company’s legal department that while it is aware that there is a labour/management JIC agreement, and while it respects and supports the work of the JIC, it should be acknowledged that it is not a signatory to the agreement.


"CHEC and many other operators in the building and construction industry are not members of the Council. Likewise, not all unions are signatories to the agreement," was the e-mailed response.


CHEC said it complies fully with the laws of Jamaica in the making of all payments due to workers it engages on any project, but the bonus was a different matter.


"The 16 per cent end-of-project bonus to which reference is being made is a provision of the labour management agreement between the Council and unions that have assented to this agreement. CHEC is not a party to this agreement and is guided by the laws of Jamaica in the payment of all wages or benefits due to workers," the company said.


The firm said that it will seek to employ skilled, qualified workers for North/South Highway project.


It is understood that the Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing handed over a checklist of skilled Jamaicans who had been involved with Highway 2000 under French contractors Bouygues up to recently.


"There is a possibility that former skilled workers employed by Bouygues on Highway 2000 will be among the persons seeking employment with CHEC for work on the North-South Highway project," the engineering firms response. However, it said it had no specific knowledge as to the unionised status of the former employees of Bouygues or the terms of their remuneration.


"Rates and benefits payable to workers on a project usually impact the overall cost and price of the project and, as such, are mainly determined by the agreement arrived at between contractor and employer.


"This is particularly the case where such rates or benefits may be more favourable than the requirements under law," CHEC stated.


It said, however, that it is unaware of any concern by unionised construction workers that it is planning to ignore Jamaican skills and import skilled labourers from China.


"CHEC has always hired and will continue to hire local labourers to pursue project requirements," the company insisted.


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