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Church leaders still opposing flexi work week

BY RHOMA TOMLINSON Observer writer

Wednesday, April 02, 2014    

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DESPITE assurances from both sides of the political fence that freedom of worship will not be threatened under the proposed flexi work week arrangements, local churches are insisting that the law needs to be specific in outlining the employee's right to a 24- hour day for worship.

Church leaders are insisting that, as it now stands, the proposed law allows for freedom of worship but this is not specific enough, as the employer can still determine what days of the week the employee can be off work.

Contrary to popular belief, the church officials said they are not opposed to flexi work arrangements as it does have some benefits.

However, "in the real world" employers will have the upper hand, and could insist that employees work on the day they want off for worship. In the current religious culture, many Jamaicans assemble for worship either on Sabbath, which is observed from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday or on Sundays.

But the proposed law, which was tabled in Parliament last week, will do away with the two-day weekend, and will allow for all seven days of the week to be potential work days. Under the new law, employees would still be entitled to two days off per week.

Former labour minister Pearnel Charles, who pushed for the implementation of the bill while he was in office, insists that the law will allow church goers to "negotiate" with their employees, as to their days off, and they should insist that one of these days be their worship day.

"No employer can determine your rest day. It is you who determines what is your rest day. That is what is in this (the bill). Employers must recognise and accept that a worker is free to negotiate his or her day of work. Thirdly, the right of all workers to worship on the day of their choice must be recognised," Charles said.

Head of the Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC) Reverend Gary Harriot said the matter should not be left up to negotiation.

According to Harriott, given "the reality of employment in Jamaica" and "the scarcity of jobs", the worker may not have the same level of power that the employer has.

"The church has been arguing that the employer should not determine what the rest day is, but the employee," he said.

This stance was supported by attorney at law Wendel Wilkins, who said the proposed law does not go far enough.

"We want the law to say that the employer must take steps to accommodate the day of worship. In many countries where they have flexi work week, the employer cannot say no," he said.

The matter was being discussed during a panel discussion hosted by the Northern Caribbean University Church on the grounds of the Mandeville Seventh-day Adventist Church, to look at how the impending flexi work arrangements will affect work and worship.

President of the Senate Floyd Morris, and attorney at law and state minister for foreign affairs Arnoldo Brown were also members of the panel.

During the discussions, Wilkins echoed the concerns of a number of church members that they would have little or no redress, should they be fired, because of their insistence to take a worship day.

"For the ordinary worker, going to the constitutional court is expensive...they can't pay any lawyer $250,000 to go to the constitutional court," he argued.

But Charles insisted that if religious rights were breached, church members could take their grouse to the Industrial Disputes Tribunal (IDT), the highest labour court in the land, which is free of cost. He said any worker, whether unionised or not, could have their issues dealt with by the IDT.

"We're going to have this (the law) in place soon. Any worker who loses their job because they are Seventh-day Adventist and I'm around, you can be sure that I'll be on my way to the IDT...the Supreme court can't overturn the IDT, they can only send it back for them to reconsider," Charles said.

But both Harriot and Wilkins questioned the government's capacity to deal with the volume of cases that may come to the IDT. Wilkins also lamented the level of time the process would take to go through the labour ministry and the IDT. One church member expressed a similar concern, pointing out that a case he took to the IDT in the past, took quite a long time to go through the process.

Meanwhile, the foreign affairs state minister advised members to examine both the proposed bill and policy document. Brown said while the bill is "predicated on a bargaining relationship the employer may have more influence than the employee". He says while the employee may complete their required 40 hours of work in a few days, the policy document makes reference to the period of 10:00 am to 2:00 pm as "core time". Though he did not elaborate, Brown did say that persons may be required to go to work during that period.

However, Senator Morris, who is also a former labour state minister, told concerned church members that while the grouses being put forward by the church are legitimate ones and must be further discussed before the bill becomes law, "on the face of it, I haven't seen anything that's unconstitutional".

He said though the matter had come to Parliament recently, the actual bill is not going to be debated "right, right now" as it would have to pass through the parliamentary channels. He said the flexi work arrangements were among what he called "benchmark legislation" which had to be tabled in parliament as a part of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) arrangements. "If the arrangement (flexi work week) is properly managed and properly implemented, it will redound to the good of the country."

Brown agreed, noting that the bill would not be passed until about September. He said there was still time for the church to strengthen its case, as it would possibly again "come up for discussion" between the end of April/May after the budget was dealt with.

If passed, the bill, formally called the Employment (Flexible Work Arrangements) (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014, will effectively do away with the average 9:00 am to 5:00 pm workday.

However, Charles said the law will allow persons to work no more than 12 hours per day. Persons will still be required to work only 40 hours per week, and anything over that period, will be considered overtime. Both politicians and the business community have been touting the flexi work arrangements as a possible turning point in the country's economy, as they are expecting it to boost productivity and possibly increase employment.

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