Unions left in the dark
Trade union leaders were stunned and labour ministry officials embarrassed by Wednesday's revelation that a draft of the Occupational Safety and Health Bill is now in the hands of the Chief Parliamentary Council (CPC), during a meeting of the Labour Advisory Council at the ministry's office at 1 North Street, downtown Kingston.
Union leaders were disturbed that they were kept in the dark about the status of the legislation, a settled draft of which had been approved by the CPC, following consultations with all other stakeholders, except the unions and which it is now reviewing for submission to Parliament.
While insisting that this very critical piece of legislation for safeguarding workers' health is long overdue, neither Permanent Secretary Collette Roberts-Risden nor Camille Bennett-Campbell could offer a plausible explanation as to why the trade unions which had shepherded the document had been sidelined at this juncture. In fact, despite the protestations of a least three prominent union leaders that they had been ignored, both women insisted otherwise and at times seemed confused.
"The unions were consulted, but the communication missed persons, but we will send it again," the ministry's chief accounting officer told the meeting. "If it wasn't sent to the individual unions, we're thinking it may have been sent to the confederation (Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions JCTU) with the understanding that it may have been circulated, but we will double-check," Roberts-Risden declared.
And Bennett-Campbell's attempt at clarification shed even less light on the issue.
"I'm almost positive it was sent. I will double-check, but I believe it was sent. If it has not been sent, it will be sent. We did a settled draft from the CPC, which was circulated among stakeholders for consultation," she explained.
At least three trade-union leaders took serious issue with being slighted in this way.
"When things get to the confederation, usually, it will be brought to the attention of the executive board, and we have had two meetings of the executive board since then and nothing has been presented ... and if that is an omission, we deem it to be a very serious omission," Helene Davis-Whyte, JCTU vice-president and general secretary of the Jamaica Association of Local Government Officers," told the meeting.
"If they communicated, the communication wasn't received, and we are not satisfied that effective communication took place. At this point, I can't say if it was sent. We are satisfied, however, that we were not part of the consultation, and it's too important a bill for the unions not to be involved," was the take of Lambert Brown, JCTU member and leader of the University and Allied Workers Union.
"Well, it (announcement) took us by surprise," Kavan Gayle, president of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union told The Gleaner after the meeting, even as the permanent secretary insisted that all the unions had been advised, but failed to respond. This, even though she could not say what channel of communication had been used, when it was done or to whom the information was communicated.
Passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act will provide the legislative framework for a major improvement in the compensation options for all workers, but especially those in new emerging industries not covered by the Factories Act of 1943. Governor General Sir Patrick Allen in the recent throne speech advised that the bill would be "vigorously pursued this year".