Sunday, April 21, 2024

FRANKLY SPEAKING: Workers’ entitlements


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Normally, I would not do requests; I write only when influenced by my muse, but after speaking to several groups of workers since the lay-offs started, I have been persuaded to address the predicament in which public workers find themselves.
After the initial reporting of the lay-offs, the media have paid little attention to the human interest stories that have emerged. Instead, they preferred to give “ball by ball” accounts of the constitutional conundrum that was created by Minister of Agriculture Dr David Estwick when he departed from the practice of the Westminster conventions by publicly disagreeing with the rest of the Cabinet.
It appears that Dr Estwick is giving his colleagues sleepless nights at the prospect of early elections, which might cause some of them to fall short of the eight years’ service required to qualify for their lucrative parliamentary pensions. On the other, the Barbados Labour Party supporters are salivating at the prospect of their returning to office. The politicians should realise that Barbados is being made to look like a banana republic, where one minister could issue veiled threats to the Government without any adverse consequences to himself.
Dr Estwick should do the decent thing and resign from the Cabinet or the Prime Minister should exhibit some rare intestinal fortitude and fire him. Barbados deserves better than this sideshow. The only thing that these shenanigans have achieved was taking attention away from the plight of laid-off public workers. Dr Estwick could not have done a better job if he planned it.
Workers have been left feeling betrayed and are wondering who or what next. Unfortunately, I have no good news, and can only point out what public workers can expect.
Outside of contract employees, there are basically three different types of workers employed by Government: established/ permanent public officers, employees of statutory boards, and employees of Government-owned companies that have been incorporated under the Companies Act.
Each category has different conditions of service, and if that were not confusing enough, in each category, there also temporary employees some of whom have been working continuously in excess of ten years. I will attempt to explain the entitlements of these various workers in the event that they are laid off, but before I do, it is useful to note that I am only the messenger.
Statutory Boards: There are 19 statutory boards whose employees are pensionable under the provisions of the Statutory Boards (Pensions) Act. Permanently appointed employees at these boards are not entitled to severance pay under the Severance Payments Act or to unemployment benefits from National Insurance. However, temporary officers at these boards are entitled to receive unemployment benefits from NIS, and if they have been employed for two or more years but less than ten, they are entitled to receive compensation that is a bit more generous than severance pay under the Severance Payments Act.
To cut a long story short, Government can legally delay the payment of compensation to workers from statutory boards, until their 60th birthday, if they have ten or more years’ service. Thankfully, the new Employment Rights Act applies to statutory boards and that gives employees in this situation recourse to seek compensation through the Employment Rights Tribunal, if it would only function.
Employees of other statutory boards like the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation and the Transport Board are not entitled to Government pensions and are therefore treated in the same way as private sector workers.
Government-owned companies: Persons employed by these companies have the least complicated employment terms and conditions. Employees of these companies are private sector. If they are laid off and compensation is not paid they can apply to the Severance Payment Tribunal or in certain circumstances, the Employment Rights Tribunal to obtain compensation.
Established/Permanent Public Offices: Traditionally this class of worker had been the most secure but legislative tinkering over the years and the Caribbean Court of Justice’s (CCJ) ruling in the Winton Campbell case have combined to place these workers in a very precarious position.
Prior to the court’s ruling, permanently appointed public officers whose posts were abolished, and who had ten or more years’ service, were entitled to receive their pensions at whatever age, until such time as Government could find suitable alternate employment for them. For that reason when legislation was passed to provide for severance payments and unemployment benefits, permanently appointed public officers were excluded. This situation also applies to temporary workers in this category, who have been employed for ten or more years.
As a result of that ruling, we now have a situation where appointed public officers would not be entitled to receive any immediate monetary benefits if they are sent home. They would only be able to receive compensation when they reach 60 years of age. Just imagine being sent home at age 40 and having to wait 20 years for any benefits. That is precisely what Government was attempting to do with many of the workers that were laid off from the National Housing Corporation.
But NHC workers are unique when it comes to terms and conditions in the Public Service. They are pensionable under the Pensions Act which would bring them under the ambit of the CCJ’s decision, but as a statutory corporation, the displaced workers can bring a complaint for unfair dismissal against the board under section 42 of the Employment Rights Act.
Unity Workers Union has initiated proceedings for 21 of those workers.
In April last year, Government put the Employment Rights Act in place to protect workers from unscrupulous employers. Except for statutory boards, they did not provide legislation to protect workers from an out-of-control Government. And the major unions have allowed their powder to get wet with Government handouts and they are not battle ready to protect workers. If Government is allowed to get its way, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
• Caswell Franklyn is a trade unionist and social commentator.

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