Mon | Feb 17, 2020

‘Don’t force essential services staff to work in unsafe conditions’ - Unions, lawmakers push back against proposed clause in occupational health bill

Published:Thursday | February 14, 2019 | 12:06 AM
Helene Davis-Whyte, president of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions.

Members of the joint select committee hearing deliberations on Tuesday on the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 2017, were unanimous in supporting veteran trade unionist Helene Davis-Whyte’s recommendation to give members of the essential services the right to refuse to operate under conditions that expose them to immediate or imminent danger.

In her submission, the president of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions argued that the failure to do so would provide a legal loophole for the Government, which has too often been delinquent in promoting worker safety.

In her opposition to Section 83 of the draft, Davis-Whyte explained: “Although the law binds the State, the State is very often the biggest offender when it comes to workplace problems. And very often, we hear workers refusing to work because of the unsafe environment that they are required to work in, and we believe that any exclusion of essential services workers will put them in a position of even greater harm.”

The JCTU president told the committee that members of the essential services were eagerly anticipating passage of the act, more than 20 years in gestation, for the leverage it would provide in their advocacy for basic safety devices and equipment. These include members of the security forces, firefighters, and health workers.

Compensation not enough

In making her case, Davis-Whyte cited the case of a firefighter who despite not being provided with the requisite safety gloves, went on a fire call and suffered extensive and permanent damage to one hand.

“He has lost probably 70 per cent of the use of his hand, … and to this day, his hand has not come back to what it used to be. Compensation is not enough because sometimes you wonder how you can compensate somebody for an injury as grave as that.

“And so we believe that to exclude the essential service workers from the right to refuse work means that that puts them in greater harm and may, in fact, absolve the State, so to speak, of its responsibility to ensure that all its workers are properly protected under this act. So we are recommending that a clause be inserted or essential service workers should be allowed the right to refuse work,” the trade unionist argued.

In supporting the call, Bustamante Industrial Trade Union President Kavan Gayle underscored the need for the legislation to make very clear the duty of care required of employers in protecting workers.

“We have to find a way to treat with the protection of workers rather than to exclude them because a vast number of our workers in the country would have been exposed,” he said.

“I am not supporting it (Section 83),” declared committee member Fenton Ferguson, lamenting that after so many ministers and public servants had provided the long overdue legislation, it would not come to a stage where this crucial set of workers would be denied basic rights.

“The State has a big role to play in ensuring that they lead by example in making sure that the necessary protection to the workers is not paid lip service by the passage of a legislation, but is given real effect by provision of the necessary protective devices,” he said.