The Union of Clerical Administrative and Supervisory Employees (UCASE) is calling on the Government to refer the management of China Harbour Engineering Company Limited (CHEC) to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for criminal charges to be brought against it.
This is the latest in an ongoing saga of agitation by UCASE and at least one other entity regarding matters pertaining to working conditions and wages for workers on the Highway 2000 May Pen to Williamsfield leg project, of which CHEC is the contracted firm.
President of UCASE Vincent Morrison, in a recent interview with the Jamaica Observer, made the call following what he said was the failure of CHEC to respond to a claim served on it earlier this year for bargaining rights on behalf of the workers.
In an April 2021 letter addressed to CHEC, UCASE and the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) informed the company that the workers on the project have mandated them to represent them on all matters pertaining to their wages and working conditions. The unions informed CHEC that they are seeking the company's cooperation in recognising the unions under the Labour Relations and Industrial Dispute Act of 1975, either by consent or allowing the Ministry of Labour and Social Security to conduct a poll among the workers.
But speaking with the Observer, Morrison said that CHEC has remained non-responsive. He said the union has since August sought audience with the Ministry of Labour to settle the issue to no avail.
“We need political involvement. The Government brought them here and I don't think the Government can fold their arms and allow the Jamaican workers to be pushed around and battered. It is not fair and that is what is happening,” Morrison said.
“One of the reasons I wanted to speak with the minister is to see how he could intervene in representing the Government of Jamaica, because in my view the laws of Jamaica are far more important than what China Harbour is doing in Jamaica and I'm very serious about that statement and I don't think we should allow anybody at all — whether China, United States or the United Kingdom — you should never allow your multinational companies to come into our country and break the law. And that is why I am urging the ministry to refer the thing to the Director of Public Prosecutions for criminal proceedings to be taken out against the company,' the UCASE President said.
According to Morrison, the ministry has legal backing to take that kind of action.
“Under the Labour Relations Industrial Disputes Act, when a claim is served on a particular company, or any company for that matter they have time frames within which to respond to the ministry. Failure to respond to the Ministry of Labour can become a criminal offence,” he said.
“For the ministry to process the ballot, they have a ballot among the workers, they will have to get certain information from the company and the ministry has standard letters that they would write to the company asking them to submit certain information. If that information is not submitted in a timely manner, then it can be considered a breach of the Labour Relations Industrial Disputes Act which could lead to criminal offences. We have had companies in Jamaica who have breached the law and have ended up in the courts. It takes a long time, but some have reached as far as the Privy Council. So, the ball is in the court of the Ministry of Labour to decide what they are doing,” the UCASE head said.
He said while the ministry lingers, workers are suffering.
“This is a construction project. It has a life, and what the company is doing is dragging out the thing. But by the time the matter is dealt with then maybe 50 per cent of the work would have already been done.
''Myriad issues are affecting the workers. For example, workers have complained about the rate of pay that they are getting. They have complained about the lack of protective equipment, the absence of basic necessities such as potable drinking water and the list goes on. This is a continuation of issues from the Mandela project, the Portia Simpson Miller Square project, the Hagley Park to Constant Spring Road project, it's a continuation,” Morrison told the Observer.
“That is CHEC, that is how CHEC operates. What CHEC does is they sub-contract the work, so you go on a project, you see the sign CHEC all over, the worker tells you they are working with CHEC but the management will probably tell you no, they are working with contractor X or Y. These are interventions that I believe are needed from the political level,” he added.
Workers employed to the project have at varying times staged demonstrations complaining that the terms and conditions (wages and benefits) are less favourable than what they received when the first leg of Highway 2000 was constructed under the management of the French contractor, Bouygues.