Fri | Dec 15, 2017

Rodje Malcolm | A social justice legislative agenda for 2018

Published:Wednesday | December 6, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Rodje Malcolm

Legislative reform is a marathon of unknown distance. Bills take years to become law and then decades to be reformed. That is unless the Government is passionate about the issue, in which case legislative reform is a sprint. The only trick is getting the Government to sprint for the right causes.

When the Government prioritises a law, it is communicating what, and who, matters most to it. In the informal hierarchy, legislation for an international financial partner like the IMF is usually close to the top and is routinely fast-tracked, as is whatever crime-fighting law is in season. On the other hand, laws to strengthen social protection, human rights and accountability tend to be closer to the bottom and take years to complete.

The present legislative year will soon be over and key initiatives to advance social justice remain on the back burner. In this week's column, I highlight a few efforts we ought to prioritise in the upcoming legislative year.

 

Finalise outstanding legislation

 

As a country, we have no modern law governing general working conditions or workers' welfare, protection, and safety. The Occupational Health and Safety Bill seeks to solve this decades-long problem. Cabinet issued drafting instructions for this bill in March 1999. It was finally tabled in April 2017, but Parliament is yet to debate it. This bill would assure workers of several modern workplace protections for the first time. Every Jamaican worker has a stake in this law. For 2018, do not let this fall off the agenda.

Jamaica took a progressive leap in 2014 when we passed the Disabilities Act. Sadly, this has meant little for disabled Jamaicans because successive governments have refused to bring the legislation into force, arguing that they need more time to prepare the regulations and make specific arrangements. In 2018, the Government should prioritise that process. We should not accept a fourth year of denying disabled Jamaicans legal protection from discrimination in employment, housing, healthcare and education, the right to accessible buildings, and the Disability Rights Tribunal to provide them with redress.

 

Sexual violence and child protection

 

Parliament's review of the Sexual Offences Act will soon enter year four, with no apparent end date in sight. At stake in this review is the definition of rape, the age of sexual consent, how the criminal-justice system treats survivors of sexual violence, and many other critical matters. The parliamentary committee conducting the review put in consistent work earlier this year, but, like their predecessors, seem to have indefinitely paused. If the public does not demand this, it will fade into oblivion.

Also on the back burner is the Sexual Harassment Bill, tabled in Parliament in 2015 but never considered. That bill would finally define sexual harassment in law and provide a redress mechanism. In May, the Government promised that it would "be brought back to Parliament this legislative year". But as of last week, it had not yet reached Cabinet. Only sustained public attention will hold them to their word.

Similarly, the Government promised to amend the Child Care and Protection Act by the end of the present legislative year. Its passage 13 years ago helped modernise Jamaica's child-protection sector, but serious challenges remain. The solutions are well documented and are merely awaiting action.

For example, in 2015, the Government announced that it would stop imprisoning children who were deemed "uncontrollable" and amend the law to make it impossible to do so in the future. While that policy directive drastically curbed the practice, the law was not amended. As such, police still detain children in lockups for being "uncontrollable", even when they commit no crimes. Law reform can fix this.

Further, as a nation, we face other, grave juvenile-justice challenges. The Child Diversion Bill seeks to address one source of these: our overuse of detention for children in conflict with the law. If passed, it would enable the diversion of children accused of certain crimes from the court system to less harmful, alternative interventions and make detention a last resort by law.

If passed, it could save scores of children unnecessarily detained in lockups for petty offences like indecent language, and facilitate treatment for those children with severe behavioural problems who end up in juvenile prisons as a

first response.

 

Question of political will

 

There are many other laws, such as the Children (Adoption of) Act and the Access to Information Act, that the Government has committed to reform. Much of the technical work is already done. The only missing element is the political will. Given our experience with the NIDS and ZOSO bills this year, we know that the Government can legislate with speed and force when it is passionate. Let us make Government passionate about the right things.

- Rodje Malcolm is a human-rights campaigner. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.