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Government insists it is protecting workers’ rights with amendments to Labour Act

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Posted: Wednesday, August 19, 2020. 2:16 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Amendments to the Labour Act have been objected to by the trade unions and civil society, who complain first of all that they were not consulted, and second that the amendments offer too wide latitude to employers.

Opposition Senator Dr. Louis Zabaneh suggested that employers may try to tie particularly troublesome employees’ hands in order to force them out. The Government should focus on continuing to keep employers in business and their employees on the job, rather than “take the easy way out.”

Trade Unions and Civil Society Senator Elena Smith observed that the amendment would “divide and conquer” employers and employees and pit them against each other. The employer under the amended Section 116, she suggested, “may” try to get employees to agree, but is not obligated to do so; moreover, not many employers will try to sit down with employees to discuss the financial concerns behind any reorganization plan, and there is no place for the bargaining agents to participate. Section 131, she adds, offers no means of proving that the employer can justify their economic concern such that it is necessary to send an employee on leave without pay.

She also questioned the effect of amendments on the Public Service.

Attorney General Michael Peyrefitte suggested they seek legal advice, as to him the amendment “is as clear as clear can be” and contrary to the Congress’ view, no employer can proceed without getting their employees’ agreement. Responsible employers, he said, approached the Government to legislate on this state of affairs.

He contended that no employer can be told, at least in the private sector, how many people to employ at any one time, and so when it is necessary to contemplate terminations, the law allows for employees to agree to reducing their own pay to enjoy all staff being kept on – as is now contemplated by amendment. Neither, the A.G. said, can employers institute lower wages than what is legislated without recourse to the Labour Department. The measures only go into effect when there is a state of emergency, or under any measure to protect public health and safety, such as a lockdown.

But Opposition Senator Michel Chebat maintained that not enough is being done to ease workers’ anxiety and provide a social safety net, suggesting payroll loans for MSME businesses as an example. He also accused the Government of mismanaging the economy and leading us in part to this pass.

Attorney and Senator Payal Ghanwani pointed out that without the amendment, employers have a much greater latitude to restructure and terminate employees at will. She described receiving telephone calls from employers begging assistance on how to restructure, as she suggests other attorneys have in and out of the Upper Chamber (which has five, including the Attorney General).

Ghanwani says she recommended employers suspend payments while the country was on lockdown but only with the agreement of employees, prior to this amendment. Beyond the main point of agreement, she added, specifics had to be worked out, and any employee who could not reach agreement would simply and regretfully need to be let go. Employees, she concluded, can feel reassured that they will not lose their jobs and attendant benefits while on furlough or under any agreement, and the Labour Commissioner and Department are last resort.

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