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Senators clash over workers’ rights motions

BY BALFORD HENRY Observer senior reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, October 31, 2012    

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PATENT intra-party differences on social issues, such as the treatment of workers by their bosses, highlighted Friday’s debates in the Senate on motions seeking to amend two major labour laws.

Both Minister of Justice Senator Mark Golding, who acted as leader of Government Business in the absence of Senator AJ Nicholson, and Leader of Opposition Business Senator Arthur Williams ended up lecturing members on their side of the aisle on their views on the issues.

The arguments featured in a passionate debate on two motions — one to amend the Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act (LRIDA) to ensure that “contract” workers are given equal treatment under the law with other workers, brought by Government member, Senator Lambert Brown, and the other to amend the Employment (Termination and Redundancy Payments) Act (ETRPA) to protect workers threatened with redundancy and secure their compensations.

Both motions called on the Senate to approve the appointment of joint select committees of Parliament to review the Acts, and make changes to protect the workers’ interests. They were strongly supported by senators, but the two Senate leaders felt that there was a lack of balance in their arguments.

In her contribution on Brown’s motion, Senator Angela Brown Burke, a Government member and Mayor of Kingston, said that the Government should go a step further than it has gone, and stop giving contracts to employers who fail to observe best practices in the treatment of their employees. She accused successive governments of aiding and abetting companies and individuals who breach best practices.

“I believe that when we look at our procurement practices, pricing cannot be the only criteria that we use. These individuals who are providing services to the Government must be asked to ensure that they observe good practices,” Senator Brown Burke insisted.

“Whether it is security guards or other service workers, I find it hard to believe that our ministries and our agencies are unaware that they have in fact awarded contracts to companies that are doing exactly what Senator Brown is talking about,” she added. “I believe that if we can do nothing else, certainly as government, those individuals and companies that we employ must protect our workers. If we don’t ensure that happens, then what can we ask of those in the private sector?”

But Senator Golding urged caution against restrictions on Government contractors, based on best labour practices.

“The costs related to the adjustments that the firm would have to make are likely to flow through to the rates that they charge for their services or goods. And, as this rate goes up, the capacity of the Government to engage their services may be adversely impacted, and that may flow through to the businesses’ capacity to remain in business or to employ,” Golding said.

“We are in different times; the world is in a recessionary environment and labour rigidities are serious issues,” he said noting the example of Spain.

In response to Senator Gayle’s view that there should be provisions in the ETRPA to mitigate job losses and protect the rights of workers in cases on redundancy, Senator Williams said that he had a difficulty with the “underlying” assumption of the motion that the current provisions for redundancies should be maintained and strengthened.

“It is ironic how the most well-intentioned and political and social engineering decisions often produce the kinds of negative results that are exactly opposite to what was intended, and this legislation is precisely that,” Williams commented.

He noted that the ETRPA was passed during “the heady days of socialism”, and has been “a real deterrent to businesses that must effect changes in their operations”.

“Most employers are faced with issues of redundancy when their businesses are in difficulty, facing bankruptcy. In such circumstances, these employers wouldn’t have money to meet redundancy payments,” he suggested.

“An employer may decide to re-organise his business and part of that process may involve reducing the number of employees. But, according to the Act, redundancy would be payable even though the re-organisation process may prove necessary to improve efficiency and, perhaps, to salvage the business,” he said, adding that the obligation to make redundancy payments in those circumstances places a great burden on employers.

He suggested that the review look at a suggestion made in 2003 by business leader Sameer Younis for a fund to be established, funded by both employers and employees, to finance the redundancy payments. However, he admitted that when Younis made the proposal, it was “greeted by howls of protest by the trade unions”.

The Senate eventually passed the motions with some amendments.

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