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WTO agenda may lead to unionisation in Jamaica's export zones

Published:Sunday | November 16, 2014 | 11:00 AM

Avia Collinder, Business Reporter

Jamaica does intend to press ahead with changes in local laws to bring labour practices in line with World Trade Organisation (WTO) requirements, according to labour ministry technocrats, but just how far-reaching the reforms will be is subject to debate, they say.

Still, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in a report for the WTO general council on a number of changes required in Jamaica listed unionisation in export zones, in particular, as well as pay equality.

The issue of WTO's labour requirements was raised in September at a logistics forum hosted by the Ministry of Industry Investment and Commerce, where changes to the labour laws were said to be part and parcel of the move to develop a series of special economic zones, starting in 2016.

"The fact is that I am learning about these alleged changes to our labour laws for the first time, and as a result I am unable to assist you with the responses solicited," said Errol Miller, chief technical director, Ministry of Labour and Social Security.

Director of the ministry's occupational safety and health (OSH) unit, Robert Chung, said the issue had been raised for the first time in mid-October and he was yet to be briefed.

The ITUC paper on Jamaica is three years old.

In 2011, the confederation noted in its Review on the Trade Polices for Jamaica, presented in Geneva, that Jamaican law "requires excessive representation rates" from unions to collectively bargain on behalf of workers, and that the Government has "excessive powers of intervention" in labour issues.

"Anti-union discrimination and union-busting occur. One consequence of these violations of core labour standards is that there are no trade unions in the export processing zones (EPZs)," said the ITUC review.

The confederation has recommended a lower threshold than the current requirement of at least 40 per cent of the workers in a unit, or 50 per cent of the total votes, to win union representation in Jamaica.

ARBITRATION

ITUC wants the powers of the labour ministry to refer an industrial dispute to compulsory arbitration or to terminate any strikes, to be rescinded.

And it suggests that a provision for equal remuneration for men and women doing work of equal value be inserted in the Labour Code.

Whereas Jamaican law, specifically The Employment (Equal Pay for Equal Work) Act of 1975, does address the issue of pay equity, its definition of equal work as "similar" or "substantially similar" job requirements is not in line with ILO Convention No. 100, which provides for equality of pay even though the work may be of "a different nature", said the ITUC review.

"Female workers and other vulnerable groups face discrimination in terms of remuneration as well as access to the labour market," said the confederation.

It said too that legislation was needed to prevent discrimination against homosexuals, including at the workplace.

Jamaica has ratified all eight core ILO Labour Conventions dealing with issues such as restrictions on the trade union rights of workers, discrimination, child labour and forced labour.

Requests to the chairman of the Logistics Hub Task Force, Dr Eric Deans, since October 8, for an update on labour-related legislative changes needed to facilitate the new special economic zones have gone unanswered.

Deans' only response was to forward a chapter from the PIOJ Growth Inducement Strategy for Jamaica report of 2012, indicating the need for a better-trained workforce and higher productivity.

Jamaica will phase out its current export free zones in 2015, in line with WTO requirements to do away with export subsidies, but will replace them with the new economic zones.

avia.collinder@gleanerjm.com