Deborah Thomas-Felix

CEREMONIAL OPENING: Industrial Court president Deborah Thomas-Felix, speaks with Lawrence Achong, Industrial Relations chairman, Essential Services Division. At left is Herbert Soverall, vice-president, General Services Division, Industrial Court, following the virtual ceremonial opening of the Industrial Court at St Vincent St, Port of Spain, yesterday. —Photo: JERMAINE CRUICKSHANK

THE Covid-19 pandemic has changed the workplace and the world of work as we know it forever.

This is a critical juncture in the country’s history and with those changes come the need for a commitment from employers and trade unions to adjust to new and necessary workplace policy measures.

This must be done in a spirit of respect and compromise to save lives and jobs across the country.

So said president of the Industrial Court Deborah Thomas-Felix during the ceremonial opening of the Industrial Court yesterday.

Unlike previous years, the event was not open to members of the public. Instead, the president’s address was broadcast to the public live on TV, radio and social media.

Thomas-Felix said since the virus reached the shores of Trinidad and Tobago in March, she has observed that several cases related to industrial relations offences have been filed against employers.

Those employers have allegedly been unilaterally implementing measures in workplaces that were not part of individual contracts of employment, and were doing so without discussions with the representative unions or employees.

It is for this reason that Thomas-Felix called upon employers to engage in “robust discussion, genuine consultation and compromise built through social dialogue for the effective implementation of measures to address this pandemic and its impact on the labour market”.

Employees terminated because of Covid

In some instances, she said the services of employees were being terminated, contrary to the law.

“As a basic principle, the employment of a worker should not be terminated in the absence of a valid reason for such termination.

“The temporary absence from work due to illness such as Covid-19 or family responsibility during the pandemic does not constitute a valid reason for termination. It is important for employers to understand that termination is different from retrenchment. The latter occurs mainly due to economic reasons and the law provides a structure and a process when it is contemplated,” she said.

Thomas-Felix said the pandemic ought not to be an excuse to flout the principles and process of good industrial relations, labour standards and the laws of the country.

The jurisprudence of the court, she said, was consistent on the issue of the unilateral position of new terms of employment and the unilateral variation of the existing terms of contracts of employment.

“It is settled law that it is unlawful for an employer to unilaterally alter the existing terms and conditions of employment of workers. Employers are reminded that they must respect and adhere to the rule of law when making these tough decisions which affect the livelihood of workers and the survival of their businesses.”

In times like these, employers should not consider a unilateral approach to the resolution of issues in the workplace, she stated, but instead engage in discussion with unions and employees in an attempt to arrive at peaceful resolutions.

Thomas-Felix stated that in instances where there are no recognised unions, it is important for employers to have discussions, consultations and meetings with workers so that they can have a proper understanding and appreciation of the challenges and issues at the workplace and have first-hand knowledge of any changes which are contemplated before the actual decision-making.

“I urge employers in all sectors to appreciate the need for workers to be kept informed, consulted and to be made aware beforehand of decisions to introduce new policies and changes to the workers’ terms and conditions of employment. Additionally, workers should be informed on what steps they can take for their own protection, the protection of their colleagues and at the same time, contribute to the containment of this pandemic,” she said.

It is her hope that social partners will pool their collective wisdom to identify the modalities of remote work in Trinidad and Tobago in order to have “a smooth transition to this new working method”.

Protesting in a pandemic

As it relates to trade unions, Thomas-Felix said the law provides for members to protest, march and exercise freedom of association during collective bargaining, and if there is a breakdown in negotiations.

However, she said freedom of association and the related fundamental rights were not unfettered and may be subject to restrictions and suspension during certain periods of crisis.

“The present restrictions should be seen in the context of the gravity of the Covid-19 pandemic and justifies in my view, the reason to restrict the crowd-gatherings down to a minimal number. “Even though these restrictions will prevent large gatherings by unions, it is my respectful view that they do not amount to an abuse by the State but rather a decision by the State over health and safety reasons

“I respectfully suggest that they create new ways for their voices to be heard and to voice their protest during the pandemic,” she stated.

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