Thursday, April 18, 2024

NOT ALL BLACK AND WHITE: Act seems to work against public sector employees

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IN THE PAST whenever I was asked to compare being a trade unionist that represents public service workers with one that represents workers in the private sector, I would always answer by saying that it was far easier to represent public service employees.

Today it is more difficult to represent public sector workers.

After slavery, private sector employers continued to treat workers harshly. There was surplus labour and workers who had jobs were forced to accept meagre wages just to keep body and soul together.

The Barbados Workers’ Union emerged after the riots and literally became the saviour of the working class. But it had little to work with. Except for collective agreements, employment terms and conditions were mostly unregulated.

In some cases non-unionised workers obtained similar working conditions to those of unionised workers. However, that was the exception and oftentimes those benevolent conditions changed for the worse with changes in ownerships of businesses.

There were no standard rules that applied across the board for private sector workers. Up until very recently the law allowed private employers to dismiss workers for any reason or for none. And the courts allowed workers to be dismissed without compensation as long as the employer gave the worker adequate notice.

On the other hand, the terms and conditions of employment in the Public Service were set out in law, which gave the workers some measure of certainty. Therefore, all it took to adequately represent public officers would have been a sound knowledge of rules.

In these times everything has changed. With the coming into force of the Employment Rights Act, private sector employees were given new rights which provided a level of certainty that didn’t previously exist for them.

That Public Service level of certainty which previously existed has now been greatly diminished. But it did not come about as a result of any changes to the law. As a matter of fact, the 2007 Public Service Act gave public officers enhanced protection. So what went wrong? The simple answer is that the sections that would cause problems for the workers have been rigorously enforced while the beneficial provisions are being ignored.

Section 13 (11) of the Public Service Act states:

“No established office in the Public Service shall be allowed to remain vacant for a period of more than one year except

(a) permission to allow the vacancy is granted by the Governor-General on the advice of the Service Commission; or

(b) the office has been frozen by the Minister.”

Further, paragraph 9 of the Recruitment and Employment Code (Code) only allows the Public Service Commission to fill short-term vacancies for a period of not more than 12 months, without going through the process of advertising and interviewing applicants.

Nonetheless, there are literally hundreds of posts, ranging from maid to permanent secretary, being filled contrary to the provisions of the Code.

Note 7 of the Code strengthens the point: In order to give managers flexibility to meet short-term needs sensibly and economically, recruitment to appointments of up to 12 months may be carried out without open competition if personnel from within the organisation are filling such vacancies.

If there is any possibility that staff may be needed for more than 12 months, or if the vacancy is being filled by external recruitment, then the procedure for full, fair and open competition should be used at the outset.

That is one clear reason why it is more difficult to represent public officers today. I have found that for the most part, responsible private sector employers try to follow the rules that have been laid down in the Employment Rights Act.

In the Public Service, however, there is a tradition of written rules but these rules are more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

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