By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A former FNM leadership contender yesterday slammed the Government’s proposed labour law reforms as “the most ludicrous, ridiculous and hare-brained legislation I’ve heard of”.
Loretta Butler-Turner, the party’s labour spokesman, told Tribune Business that the private sector would be sent into “a tailspin” if the Government imposes “criminal liability” upon employers for failing to inform it of redundancies involving 10 or more workers.
And, with the Christie administration also proposing to remove the ‘12-year cap’ on employee severance pay under the Employment Act, Mrs Butler-Turner said businesses would become increasingly wary about hiring new workers.
This, she added, would have the effect of reducing both unemployment and economic activity at a time when the Bahamas needed GDP growth more than ever.
Mrs Butler-Turner also argued that both Shane Gibson, minister of labour and national insurance, and Robert Farquharson, the director of labour, were the wrong persons to be in charge of the Government’s workforce policies, given that both likely harboured pro-union sympathies given their backgrounds.
“That is the most ludicrous, ridiculous, hare-brained piece of legislation I have heard of being proposed,” Mrs Butler-Turner told Tribune Business of the proposed Employment Act reforms, which were presented last week.
“Can I say it any more vigorously than that? The reality is that we want to grow employment, not frighten it away. You’re telling me that you’re going to put that liability on the private sector? It’s going to stop them hiring people.”
The Christie administration wants to make it mandatory for employers to provide two months’ (60 days) notice to itself and the relevant bargaining agent (trade union) whenever they are about to make 10 or more workers redundant, with failing to do so becoming a criminal offence.
And, joining this proposal in the “emergency legislation” the Government wants to bring to the House of Assembly by September 30, the Government also wants to remove the Employment Act’s existing ‘12-year cap’ on severance/redundancy pay.
Such a move has long been demanded by Bahamian trade union leaders, while the ‘advance redundancy warning’ measure appears to be a “knee jerk” reaction by the Government to Sandals Royal Bahamian’s termination of its 600-strong workforce.
Yet the plans have horrified employers, who see them adding “astronomical costs” and excessive ‘red tape’ and bureaucracy to their operations - and at a time when many companies are already struggling to survive or avoid downsizing.
Mrs Butler-Turner suggested that if the proposals became law, Bahamas-based employers would constantly be assessing staffing levels, and “second guessing” themselves on new hires, given that the severance pay cap’s removal threatened to make redundancies cost-prohibitive.
“It’s going to have a very negative impact on hiring,” she reiterated. “What’s going to happen is that private enterprise is going to be constantly looking at how many people are in their workforce.
“This is going to put private enterprise into a tailspin, and businesses will be very wary of hiring. This is a very bad proposal.”
Should the Employment Act’s redundancy ‘cap’ be lifted, Bahamian companies may respond by discriminating against older workers, given that making them redundant will be cost prohibitive.
Employers will be induced to maintain younger workforces, and may also respond by avoiding long-term contracts for staff members, thereby contributing to the spread of lower paid, casual labour - a phenomenon affecting many developed countries.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Mrs Butler-Turner added. “The Government needs to go back to the drawing board.... They should not unilaterally force this piece of legislation on anybody that’s hiring people.
“This is going to make the environment so difficult. It’s going to make employers second guess every time they hire someone. This is not going to help to retain jobs and protect workers. It’s going to prevent future hiring.”
Mrs Butler-Turner said she was seeking to protect the interests of both Bahamian workers and employees, and called for the proposals to be further debated - and amended - by the National Tripartite Council.
That body, which consists of representatives from the Government, private sector and trade unions, is supposed to determine and, in theory, reach a consensus on all labour law reforms presented in the Bahamas before they go to Parliament.
Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC) executives have already moved to reassure an increasingly alarmed private sector that the proposed labour law reforms are “not set in stone”, and have to be discussed at the Tripartite Council.
However, the nature of the Government’s reform proposals, which were first publicly unveiled at the Tripartite Council’s meeting last week, make it clear that it intends to use the Sandals situation as justification to push them through as “emergency legislation”.
Mrs Butler-Turner agreed that the proposals appeared to be “a knee jerk reaction to see if they can appease” Bahamians over the Sandals terminations, adding that the Government had been “blindsided” over both that situation and Baha Mar.
She said that in its haste to show it was responding, the Christie administration was now threatening to penalise hundreds of small and medium-sized Bahamian businesses already struggling with the weak economy.
“This approach of legislating liability and criminalising the actions of the employer is not going to help,” Mrs Butler-Turner told Tribune Business.
“It’s only going to create, in my opinion, acrimony between the Government and employers. It’s not going to work. It’s a ludicrous proposal. I just can’t fathom it.”
Accusing the Government of “a very heavy-handed approach”, the FNM MP said “it doesn’t work like that” in response to the requirement for employers to provide 60 days’ redundancy notice or face criminal charges.
Mrs Butler-Turner also suggested that Messrs Gibson’s and Farquharson’s previous roles as trade union leaders effectively disqualified them as impartial arbiters of the Government’s labour policies.
“I find it reprehensible that we have gotten to this point where we have persons in Government in charge of labour coming from a union background, and having this very hostile approach to employers and employees,” she added.