THE swift March 2016 termination of hundreds of workers by ArcelorMittal left not only trauma for steel workers and their families but a stain on the country’s labour protection laws, gaps in which were invoked by the company. Three years later comes the announcement by Labour Minister and former trade union boss, Jennifer Baptiste-Primus that reformation of the relevant laws is well underway and will be tabled for debate in Parliament in the coming months.
Though we wait to see and analyse the actual amendments being proposed to the Retrenchment and Severance Benefits Act (RSBA), we welcome the Ministry of Labour’s attention to this Act given the sad and unfair fate suffered by 644 workers of the plant who were summarily dismissed with no benefits. Key to ensuring that no other workers encounter a similar future fate is redefining the terms “redundancy” and “consultation” as they appear in the RSBA, a task to which the minister directly addressed her and her ministry’s efforts.
Workers with decades of service were severed with, to date, no retrenchment benefits. The Industrial Court ruled against ArcelorMittal, ordering that workers to be retrenched or severed were entitled to be compensated. Avoiding the cost, ArcelorMittal proceeded instead to close down its plant and terminate all workers. Workers would later face another unkind cut in receiving a fraction of their pension, according to a still-smouldering Timothy Bailey, president of SWUTT, the steel workers union.
Along with impending amendments to the RSBA are changes to the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) and a new bill on Cipriani Labour College and Co-operatives. Changes to the IRA, as stated by Ms Baptiste-Primus, include addressing the independence and tenure of judges of the Industrial Court, long regarded as in need of attention. Judges of the Industrial Court are currently determined by Cabinet, which has come to be seen as unacceptable given that the labour court is a superior court of record.
Placing responsibility for appointment and tenure of those judges with the Judicial and Legal Services Commission (JLSC) has been a recurrent recommendation that, according to the minister, she had been influenced to consider, along with alignment of the definition of “essential services” with international labour standards.
There is room for much hope that the minister, conversant as she is with labour law and practice and having had the lived experience of advocating on behalf of workers, has presided over a process that is meaningful and amendments that are in the best interest of all workers and employers.
That more than 1,689 stakeholders were consulted and 1,152 hours dedicated to drafting the proposed amendments, according to the minister, is a welcome indication that the ministry is itself using the new definition of “meaningful consultation” that it plans to introduce into the labour law landscape.