IF the church gets its way, employees — and not their bosses — will be the ones to determine rest days under the proposed flexi-week arrangement.
The church, represented by the Adventists and the Concerned Church Leaders Group, argues that this is the only way of ensuring that workers' right to worship, as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights -- the 2011 amendment to the Jamaican Constitution -- are upheld.
"Any implementation of flexi-week must include in it that provision, ie a day of rest chosen by the employee," convenor of the Concerned Church Leaders Group Rev Earl Thames told the Jamaica Observer.
The proposal has been on the table since 2003 when the church, Government and trade union groups convened a national tripartite meeting on flexible working arrangements and agreed to a national plan of action. Among the things to which they agreed, according to the church, are that "all workers should be entitled to a period of rest of at least 24 hours" and that "they should have the right to negotiate the day on which they will take this weekly rest, including with the purpose of ensuring that it coincides with their day of worship, and that right shall be protected by law".
But since then, outside of setting up a string of committees to review the proposals put forward, the Government has made no move to have the proposal passed into law.
In the 2010 Report of the Joint Select Committee on its deliberations on the Report on Green Paper #4 of 2001, regarding Proposals for the Introduction of Flexible Work Arrangements, the committee recommended that "the employers and the employees could work out a position of compromise and understanding at the workplace that would take into consideration the right of the employee to a day of rest".
"They did agree on the day of rest," said Thames. "But since that agreement, I'm afraid, the Government has not moved in any way to implement that which we have agreed on."
Pointing to the growing number of business establishments that open on Sundays, for example, he added: "The Government has breached that agreement in many, many ways... for flexi-week has been let in through the back door".
In light of that, the Adventist church in Jamaica, the largest single denomination in the country, recently renewed its call for Government to formally introduce the flexi-week arrangement.
This, it said, is against the background that the hotel and fast food industries, in particular, are mandating Sabbath-keeping employees to work well past the Friday evening start of the Sabbath, contrary to the national plan of action.
Communication director at the Jamaica Union of Seventh Day Adventists, Nigel Coke, said the church has "niggling concerns" about the situation and used a recent rally on religious liberty to remind members about their right to worship.
"It has become necessary for me again to issue the call for the Government to fast-track the Flexible Work Arrangement, which has been under contemplation for the past 17 years," said Coke, who doubles as the organisation's director of public affairs and religious liberty.
"I believe the time has come for the Government to amend the various restrictive legislation to facilitate this long-awaited programme as part of the Labour Market Reform process.
He told the Observer that the church has been getting complaints about some establishments which, while allowing Adventist employees Saturdays off, for example, are insisting that they work late into Friday night. For the group, that is a violation of the Sabbath, which is observed from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.
"Some people are saying 'okay, we'll give you Saturday', but you have to work up to 10:00 Friday night. So they are not acknowledging the 24-hour Sabbath," he said.
Under the proposed flexible work schedule the current eight-hour day will be varied by allowing workers to negotiate lighter schedules. It favours telecommuting, will seek to redefine overtime work and will give more rights to part-time workers, who are now denied benefits such as health insurance.
Before the Jamaica Labour Party Government lost the general election in 2011, then labour minister Pearnel Charles said his ministry was close to implementing the proposed changes. His successor and current minister Derrick Kellier was quoted in the media last year as saying the plans would be finalised this year.
The chief technical director in the labour ministry, Errol Miller, said as much while speaking with the Observer last week.
"What is necessary at this time is the tabling of the White Paper in Parliament. I suspect that it may be done in the new financial year. I can't say that it has been developed yet, but that is the intention," Miller said.
Proponents of the flexible schedule say it will provide increased employment opportunities and will drive productivity as, if a worker chooses to complete his 40 hours in three days for example, someone else can be hired for the remaining two work days.
But whatever the outcome of the employer/employee-negotiated flexibility, Adventists insist that "the employer cannot be the sole arbiter and determiner of the workers' rights as some supervisors are sometimes unreasonable, inflexible and spiteful. It therefore cannot be left to the employer's discretion to ensure that the worker obtains his entitlement".
"Outside of the variances in the number of hours worked each day, the number of days worked each week, and the days of the week when employees work, a critical part of this arrangement must be to ensure that the day of worship is dictated by the employee and not the employer," said Coke.
"Seventh-day Adventists and other God-fearing Christians must be aware that their right of freedom of conscience and worship is protected in the Charter of Rights, Section 17, (1), ...which states that if persons are denied the right to worship, they have the protection of the law," he added.
Coke cautioned, however, that in exercising said right, church members ought to adopt a diplomatic attitude.
"I appeal to all our members to know your rights to freedom of worship, but also to understand that it does not mean that you should exercise your rights in a rude and unprofessional way. We do so with Christ-like dignity.
"The Adventist approach is always negotiation, mediation and diplomacy to resolve issues and reach amicable agreements with governments, unions or employers," he told the congregation.
The rally was held at Family of God Seventh-day Adventist church in Spanish Town. It was the third in a series held in each of the church's regions to sensitise and inform the members about their rights to freedom of conscience, religion and worship.
His concerns notwithstanding, Coke said successive governments were to be commended for having upheld Jamaicans' constitutional rights.
"I also take this opportunity on behalf of our church to express our deepest gratitude to successive governments of Jamaica who have upheld the constitutional rights of the citizens of this country for freedom of religion and worship. We are enjoying what millions in the world are not, and so we deem this a privilege," said Coke.
For his part, president of the Jamaica Council of Churches Rev Donald Reece underscored an essential sticking point in the discussions on the flexi-week proposal.
"We need to make sure family life is not impacted adversely," he told the Observer.
Nigel Coke delivering a message at Andrews Memorial Sevent-Day Adventist Church on January 26, 2013.
REECE... we need to make sure family life is not impacted adversely