Cash-strapped steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal has been fined by the Industrial Court for the procedure it used in laying off over 500 of its employees in December last year.
Delivering judgment at the court's headquarters, St Vincent Street, Port-of-Spain, yesterday afternoon, its president Deborah Thomas-Felix criticised the multinational company for failing to discuss the temporary cost-cutting method with the Steel Workers' Union before it was implemented.
While Thomas-Felix and her three colleagues agreed that the company was allowed to send workers home temporarily in a bid to "rectify its precarious economic position," it could only do so if it gave the union advance notice and an opportunity to counter the proposal.
She added: "There is not a scintilla of evidence to justify layoffs without proper consultation other than disdain for orderly negotiations and good industrial relations practices."Having the right to lay off does not mean it can be applied arbitrarily or unfairly."
According to the evidence presented in the case, the company admitted that the lay-off was part of its financial restructuring as its profits had dwindled over the past two years due to a worldwide drop in steel prices.
In October, last year, the company proposed that its workers take their vacation leave to facilitate the reduction in production at its Point Lisas plant.
The union requested time from the company to solicit the views of the workers on the issue, but while doing so, the company contacted workers directly, threatening a lay-off if the proposal was not accepted.
The workers were eventually laid off on December 7, leading the union to file the case against the company for failing to properly inform it of the proposal and for bypassing it by negotiating directly with its members.
The company was fined $20,000 for the former and $4,000 for the latter offence after being found guilty by the court yesterday.In its judgment, the court also ruled that the company acted unfairly towards the workers by attempting to force them to take the vacation proposal as deciding when to take their vacation was one of their fundamental rights.
"The big stick approach by the company in forcing the vacation leave proposal is extremely unfortunate and is against the spirit of co-operation," Thomas-Felix said.As part of the court's judgment it ordered the company to pay the workers' salaries for the period of the layoff which followed the threat (December 7 to January 15).
It also reinstated the vacation leave of workers who acceded to the company's threat before being laid off and allowed those workers who cashed in on their vacation time to keep the company's payment as the court felt their decisions on the issue were compromised by the illegal act of the company.
However, the court was not asked to deliberate on the company's decision to lay off the workers for a second period which is due to expire next Monday.Immediately after the judgment was delivered the company's legal team indicated its intention to appeal and requested that the orders of the court be stayed pending the outcome of the appeal.
The application was strongly opposed by the union and was eventually rejected by the four-member panel of Industrial Court judges, who indicated that the application should be made to the Court of Appeal after the appeal is filed.
Addressing media personnel and scores of workers who gathered outside the courthouse to await the judgment, the union's president Christopher Henry praised the court's ruling in the case and the compensation awarded to his members.
"We have seen justice done here today. This goes a long way in lifting the spirits of our members who have been under tremendous financial pressure," Henry said.
However, he warned that the union would now have to resume its discussions with the company over the future of its operations.
"We feel the way forward is for the parties to sit and have dialogue as to what is our future. It must be to put things on the table that will ensure we have continuity of employment for our workers and of the steel plant, which is a major revenue earner for T&T," Henry said.
The union was represented by Douglas Mendes, SC, and Anthony Bullock, while Reginald Armour, SC, Derek Ali and Vanessa Gopaul appeared for the company.