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Industrial Court president: Contract labour hurting public service
The growing trend of contract employment in the public service is leading to a “systematic dismantling and weakening of the public service.” So says president of the Industrial Court Deborah Thomas-Felix speaking at a special sitting to usher in the new law term, at St Vincent Street, Port-of-Spain. “In recent decades we have been witnessing a surge of what is referred to as ‘privatising the public service.’ This trend is characterised by what appears to be a proliferation of fixed-term contracts to people who are not considered to be government employees and who do not enjoy job security,” Thomas-Felix said. The trend can have social implications, she said, urging the Minister of Labour, Small and Micro Enterprises, Errol McLeod, who was in the audience, to intervene.
In response, McLeod said yesterday Thomas-Felix had raised some important concerns which would be immediately looked at. “I wish that all of us who are stakeholders in the process of the Industrial Court be so advised and certainly I am going to be taking some initiatives,” McLeod said in a telephone interview. Also commenting was Public Services Association (PSA) president Watson Duke, who said fixed-term contracts were “good to the society,” but there were those who took advantage of the process. In her speech, Thomas-Felix said while some countries have been seeking models to match their economic growth and development, what was emerging in T&T was a number of contracts awarded for very short periods such as three, six and 12 months as opposed to longer-term contracts for between two and five years. Saying some of these contracts were poorly drafted, Thomas-Felix added, “The person to whom the contract is awarded is sometimes at pains to understand the terms of engagement.”
In some public sector departments, Thomas-Felix said, these contracts are renewed on each expiration date for an indefinite period while in other departments the contract comes to an end with the passing of time, and therefore there appears to be no standard policy on the terms of these contracts. Thomas-Felix said the public service, in general, has been characterised by “bureaucracy at all levels” and bureaucratic management procedures in the public sector have created a “widespread perception of inefficiency in the performance of its function.” In citing instances which have been brought before the court, Thomas-Felix said when a person on a fixed-term contract entered the public sector, that person was usually trained to perform a specific task and after that training the person was expected to apply this knowledge to the benefit of the department and public. “When the contracts come to an end six months or a year later there is a void, and the department now has to get someone, in most cases on a new contract. “This is a continuous process that is disruptive, undermines the building of strong, effective teams and could adversely affect the productivity of the department,” Thomas-Felix added.
She said an “obvious disadvantage” to the contracted person was that person was not considered a public servant or a worker within the meaning of the Industrial Relations Act. Thomas-Felix said that person therefore does not enjoy the same benefits and security of tenure which traditional public servants enjoy and that person was also not entitled, on the expiration of his contract, to representation by a trade union. “This denial of the legal right to representation and to collective bargaining to ordinary citizens is something which should not be overlooked or taken lightly,” Thomas-Felix urged. On a social level, she said, a number of citizens, many of whom are young people who are on short fixed-term contracts, cannot open bank accounts, secure mortgages or meet the criteria to rent an apartment, owing to the very short duration of their contracts. “As a nation we should strive for social peace, social justice and a model of development that would ultimately propel us in the region and the world as a vibrant, emerging economy with a solid, social infrastructure,” Thomas-Felix added. Also in attendance at the function were Chief Justice Ivor Archie, Anthony Gafoor, chairman of the Tax Appeal Board, Independent Senator Elton Prescott, SC, and Law Association president Seenath Jairam, SC.