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Need to revise labour laws
Economic conditions in 2011 should not be used to determine public servants’ salary increases for 2008, 2009 and 2010. So said attorney-at-law and industrial relations and employment law specialist Lennox Marcelle, in an interview with the T&T Guardian at his office at the Hudson-Phillips Building, St Vincent Street, Port-of-Spain. Referring to the wage dispute between the Chief Personnel Officer and the Public Services Association (PSA), Marcelle said: “We are in 2011, but this dispute is for wage increases for 2008, 2009 an 2010. “How could you use the current economic conditions of 2011 to make a determination for 2008, 2009, and 2010?...Something is very wrong with the industrial relations systems in T&T,” he said.
He said increases for each year should be determined on the economic conditions of each individual year. According to Marcelle, the Industrial Relations Act of T&T needed to be revised to avoid such conflicts in the future. “Laws should compel parties to conclude agreements within their specific time frames,” he said, adding that this would ensure that wages were based on the economic conditions of their respective periods. “If an agreement comes to an end in 2011, we should be negotiating for 2012 and seeking to come to conclusion in 2011 before 2012,” he said. Without such laws, he says, trade unions and the Government Personnel Department delay negotiations resulting in wage increases based on the current economy, which often benefits only one party.
Discussing the current situation where negotiations between the CPO and PSA had come to halt, Marcelle said the next likely step would be the CPO informing Minister of Finance Winston Dookeran that wage negotiations had broken down, as provided by Section 17 of the Civil Services Act of T&T. “Since they were unable to reach an agreement, either the PSA or (CPO Stephanie) Lewis would report the matter to the Minister, who would then give recommendations as to how to proceed.” He said it would then be Dookeran’s responsibility to decide whether the dispute should be referred to the Special Tribunal, created under the Civil Services Act. Marcelle explained that in accordance with the laws created under the Industrial Relations Act, PSA members cannot take their matter to the Industrial Court.
He explained that PSA members were classified as employees of essential services under the Essential Services Division of the Industrial Court. He said it was up to the Essential Services Division to establish a Special Tribunal, where both parties would try to reach an amicable settlement under the purview of the Minister of Labour acting as a neutral third party. Marcelle described the Special Tribunal as “inferior,” saying it acted as a court within a court and did not have the same power as the Industrial Court.
He noted that there were specific provisions to direct the court as to what it must consider in a wage dispute between the CPO and the PSA. “The provisions to deal with public servants, from a pure industrial relations perspective, are not as strong as they are with other workers and to me that is discriminatory,” he said. He said employees in private sector disputes in the current economy had better rights under the Industrial Relations Act. Marcelle explained that because the Special Tribunal was not a real court, either party could submit an application for judicial review should the tribunal rule against them. “An example is an application for judicial review was submitted by the Chief Personnel Officer after a tribunal judged against it...This could not be done in the Industrial Court,” he said.
Marcelle said another major problem was that should the dispute go the tribunal, there was no guarantee that either party would accept the ruling. He also said the award granted by the tribunal would be binding for a period of no less than five years. Marcelle explained this meant should the PSA win for their three-year agreement, the reward would have to carry over for two years of their next bargaining period 2011 to 2013. He said this again put public servants at a disadvantage.
Marcelle said it was rare for PSA wage disputes to go to the Special Tribunal—the first and only time the union went to the tribunal was in 1985. He said circumstances then were very similar to what they were now, in that the economy was down, and when the economy went down, people were more willing to fight.
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