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JCTU head tells employers to study up on labour code

Published:Monday | August 13, 2018 | 12:00 AMAvia Collinder
Helene Davis-Whyte, president of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions.

Worker representatives are not convinced that Jamaica's labour code needs revamping, notwithstanding the battle plan that companies have devised and are executing in a pitch for changes to guidelines they describe as vague.

Helene Davis-Whyte, president of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, JCTU, insists that the labour code is not the problem - charging instead that employers are ignorant of the labour laws and need to study up on them.

The Jamaica Chamber of Commerce is the primary face for the current lobby on behalf of bosses, who want a lot more details added to the code regarding the procedures for handling workplace disputes. And they have backing from groups like The Jamaican Bar Association and the Jamaica Employer's Federation, JEF.

Both JCTU and JEF are represented on the tripartite Labour Advisory Council of the Ministry of Labour & Social Security, but despite efforts at comment from the ministry, it's still not saying whether it is open to a compromise on the issue.

The labour laws date back to the 1970s, with little changes since then. But while Davis-Whyte agrees that the laws may be in need of modernisation at this stage, she said it would be more helpful to employers were they to just educate themselves about the labour code.

She also charged that the real issue for employers was not about procedure, but the size of monetary awards handed down by the Industrial Disputes Tribunal, IDT, to workers who seek its intervention.

"From what has been said, it seems that the concern of employers has lots to do with issues that get to the IDT on behalf of individual workers and the awards that are made," said the JCTU head.

Training for employers

"From our standpoint, it is not so much that the labour laws need revision - not that they don't need a review, for relevance in today's labour market - but what is coming from employers has to do with the fact that they don't seem to be aware of what the labour code says in respect to good employer-employee relations and what should exist in the event that there are disciplinary measures to be brought against an employee," she said.

The Labour Relations Code, LRC, was enacted four decades ago on November 1, 1976. Subsequently, a sole amendment in 2010 stipulated that non-unionised workers could also seek redress through the IDT.

At a Jamaica Chamber/ Jamaican Bar Association seminar in July, attorney-at-law Emile Leiba said current labour relations standards were largely based on the interpretation of the code by the IDT, and that the tribunal itself is rarely defeated in court when its decisions are challenged.

Participants at the seminar argued that small and medium companies, in particular, tend to make missteps in handling disputes because the labour code itself does not offer sufficient guidance.

The JEF subsequently issued a public statement saying it had been pursuing its own programme to get the labour laws modernised since November 2017, inclusive of the labour code, the Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act, or LRIDA, and the IDT Act.

Its "urgent" communication to the labour ministry on the issue "indicated the specifics of what we recommend for updating," said the employers' group. "In addition, the JEF has indicated these concerns in the quarterly sittings of the advisory council. We reiterate, we believe it is time for revision and updating of the LRC, LRIDA and the IDT Act to take account of current circumstance," it said.

Reached for comment, the IDT secretariat said it would be inappropriate for it to weigh in on the discussions. Instead, it cited LRIDA, saying the law provides for the minister of labour to revise the labour code. Such revisions require passage in the Senate and House of Representatives.

In the past year ending March 2018, the IDT heard 127 disputes, five of which were described as "inactive", that is, they "were before the court and the tribunal cannot hear those matters until a ruling has been made," the IDT said. Of the other 122 disputes, 55 were disposed of, while 67 remain active cases.