Wed | Aug 12, 2020

Unions push back at lay-off extension lobby

Published:Thursday | July 16, 2020 | 12:21 AMDanae Hyman/Staff Reporter
Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Colette Roberts Risden.
Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, Colette Roberts Risden.

Intense lobbying by the Jamaica Employers’ Federation (JEF) and the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) to have the 120-day cap on lay-offs extended is likely to run into gusty headwinds, with trade unions pushing back at the move.

The coronavirus pandemic and consequent containment measures have haemorrhaged hundreds of thousands of jobs locally, and even with sectors of the economy reopening, many workers are yet to resume positions.

The Employment (Termination and Redundancy Payments) Act mandates that employees who have been laid off without pay for a period in excess of 120 days may, by notice in writing to the employer, ask to have their positions made redundant, triggering exit payouts. Partial payouts to laid-off workers are unlikely to change that paradigm, The Gleaner understands.

David Wan, president of the JEF, said that his group has petitioned the Ministry of Labour for an extension for businesses still reeling from economic fallout caused by COVID-19. That reality, he said, meant that many companies could neither afford to pay out mass redundancies or rehire employees.

“They are worried about redundancy because you’re not open to have income, plus you’re going to be facing this bill for the redundancy. We have said to the ministry that we want it extended, and they are contemplating what they are going to do and to get back to us,” Wan told The Gleaner.

President of the JHTA, Omar Robinson, also wrote to the labour ministry, querying the possibility of an extension on lay-offs to avoid the tourism industry from “having to do mass redundancies, particularly at a time when workers are wanting to get back to work, and businesses are struggling with cash flow due to closure”.

However, president of the National Workers Union, Granville Valentine, said that while he sympathised with business owners who are struggling amid the pandemic, lay-offs should not be extended because employees were facing greater difficulties having not been paid for almost four months.

“We can look at the situation and negotiate reasonable ways that both parties can live with. We know it is rough, but we have to look at different means to look at how to treat it than to change the law.

“It is not something that the Ministry of Labour can dictate or propose. It is something that has to go through the entire process,and that is not the remedy, changing the law,” Valentine said, citing the relaxation of contractual terms as an alternative.

SEEK WORKAROUNDS

President of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, Kavan Gayle, has also urged employers to fashion workarounds and compromises by way of agreements to engage with employees.

Gayle said that some entities in the tourism sector have already started discussions with different trade unions to look at other alternatives.

When contacted by The Gleaner, Labour Permanent Secretary Colette Roberts Risden said that her ministry could not grant an extension to the stipulated lay-off period.

“An extension would have to be done by legislative amendment. Legislative amendment isn’t something that is taken lightly,” said the permanent secretary.

“Such an amendment to legislation that has been around for so long would have to be done with consultation.”