Mon | Oct 21, 2019

Orville Taylor | Keep your fingers off my prints

Published:Sunday | September 29, 2019 | 12:26 AM

Having the power to do something is not the same as having the right or authority to do so. Someone needs to advise the main players in our educational institutions that simply because they are in charge, it doesn’t mean that they can do as they please.

About five years ago under the previous administration, then Minister of Education Ronnie Thwaites revealed that the majority of grievances or disputes over disciplinary measures taken by boards and principals during his tenure were overturned on appeal.

It’s not a slight majority. At least 80 per cent of expulsions and other disciplinary measures against students and staff resulted in the action being seen as unjust. More important, in a similar 80 per cent of the cases, it was because there was either not enough respect for the processes and rules or the administrators were reserving parts of their brains for use at some later date.

It is the same cry that some employers and representatives of the legal fraternity have baulked about in regard to the Industrial Disputes Tribunal (IDT). No lesser entity than the Jamaican Bar Association has bellyached as if it consumed three-week-old rice and peas.

Juridical guidelines

Our Labour Relations Code enacted under Section 3 of the Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act has a deeply embedded tradition of the rules of natural justice. Contrary to the mischief by people with public mics, these juridical guidelines have evolved for more than a century and a half in the British common law. Therefore, it is just plainly dishonest for anyone to suggest that the IDT plucks its awards from some lofty labyrinth of the panellists’ illusive and elusive imaginations.

It should be noted that disciplinary matters for public-sector employees, such as teachers, police officers and civil servants, do not go before the IDT. Rather, they are heard at the appropriate Public Service Commission.

What is consistent is that both sets of review bodies have been reversing decisions of school administrators because they have acted as if they are laws unto themselves and run roughshod over the rights and procedures of employees.

With a few exceptions, the personnel in our schools and colleges have remained the same across administrations. Boards have all changed and a few principals as well. However, most senior people in the public universities, colleges, and high and primary schools are the same. Thus, little has changed.

Another set of inviolable rules, which are binding and not subject to the vagaries or whims of heads of the institutions, are laws and ministerial guidelines. There is simply too much of the nonsense of powerful, testosterone-deficient persons with egos not matching their sense of justice, playing God with people’s lives.

What was revealed at Mona High, two weeks ago, as repugnant as it seems, is unfortunately not unusual. Here, the principal, clearly inspired by the concerns that the chief justice had with the proposed National Identification System, decided that he had the stature in law to obtain and keep biometric information of his staff.

One would expect that educators would read and keep current. But, even so, where could a principal of a government school get the idea that he could force his teachers to use their fingerprints to sign in at work?

Not only is this repugnant and clearly a breach of contract, it is possibly a flouting of the chief justice’s ruling from my limited knowledge of law. Moreover, it does appear to also be a violation of the right of privacy enshrined within the Charter of Rights under the Constitution.

Beyond that, it does appear to be in contravention of the ministry’s own policy. More amazing is that the ministry did indicate that the practice should end. Yet the principal is recorded on air as saying that there are individuals who still want to do so and were thus free to.

Perhaps there is some legal advice that tells people that they can form contracts outside of the scope of the law. However, the only solid foundation for such action is quicksand.

Yet, as repulsive as this anomaly seems, it apparently is not exceptional and that is what is troublesome. Out of the woodworks have come the all-girl Merl Grove High, Rusea’s High and the prestigious Campion College. Something tells me that there might be an unwritten norm that either approves, or at least allows, this travesty to take place.

Apart from it being illegal, in my view, and invasive, it is expensive and clearly is spending money that cash-strapped schools are least able to afford.

Some schools have opted for personal identification numbers (PINs) instead. Somehow the geniuses believe that dishonest persons can’t simply give their PINs to their friends to deflate the process. Worse, a sharp-minded malefactor could easily find out the PINs and create a massive hole in the system.

In any event, for all the wonderful technologies available, handwriting and, in particular signatures, is much more unique than one thinks. Indeed, even if someone is ambidextrous, the right hand writes differently from the left.

On the matter of biometric signatures, the left hand must do the right thing and safely do the write thing.

It is a bad thing when schools disobey rules. Schools are responsible for the socialisation of the next generation of society’s leaders. When school administrators know that something is wrong and still do it; they have no moral authority to speak about lawlessness in society at large.

So, on the subject of biometrics, my word is that there can be no compromise on fingerprinting the thumbs up. However, although very tempting, I would not even give them the central finger to use.

Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of ‘Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets’. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.