THE Government “will not do anything to ruin” efforts to revive the Bahamian economy, a Cabinet Minister pledged yesterday, as he sought to reassure businesses over labour law reforms.
Dion Foulkes, the Minister of Labour, told Tribune Business that the Minnis administration had yet to move on “contentious” election commitments to raise the 12-year redundancy pay ‘cap’ and increase the notice period for terminated employees.
Emphasising that the Government’s “major concern” was increased economic growth and job creation, Mr Foulkes said both proposals had yet to come for discussion at the National Tripartite Council - the body through which all labour-related reforms must be agreed.
The Minister added that no reforms would proceed to Parliament without a complete “consensus” between the Council’s private sector and trade union representatives, as he attempted to calm business community fears of increased labour costs and bureaucracy.
Mr Foulkes said these concerns appeared to have been stoked after he was quoted in recent media reports confirming the FNM’s manifesto promise to increase the notice period.
He suggested his remarks had been misinterpreted and taken out of context, adding that the Government had no plans to move on its promise in the short-term. “I can assure the business community that the Ministry of Labour and the Government will not do anything to ruin the effort to move the economy forward and create jobs for Bahamians,” Mr Foulkes told Tribune Business.
“I have been talking to the Chamber and other business entities, and been in consultation with the trade unions. We will not do anything unless we can get a consensus from both the business community and trade union movement. We will have extensive dialogue before we bring any legislation forward.”
The FNM’s 2017 election manifesto promised to lift the 12-year redundancy ‘cap’ on worker compensation, and increase the redundancy notice period from 30 to 45 days. It also called for dialogue with the private sector and trade unions over the creation of a redundancy fund.
Mr Foulkes and the Government, during the Budget debate and other occasions post-election, have reaffirmed their intention to move forward with these reforms. But private sector concerns over resulting increased labour costs have heightened since the Minister’s comments were reported in the media.
“I think this came about when questions were asked of me, and one was the increase in the notice period,” Mr Foulkes recalled. “I said we’ve given a commitment to increase it, but I did not give a timeframe or process for embarking on it.
“I subsequently spoke privately to Mr Sumner [the Chamber’s chief executive] and told him what the Government’s views and position are. He and I talk often and have a wonderful relationship, and we have a wonderful relationship with the major business houses in the country.
“Our [the Government’s] major concern is to get the economy going and, once we do that, there will be more jobs and people working. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Mr Foulkes’ comments had prompted Michael Maura, the Chamber’s chairman, to warn that the Minnis administration risked ‘shooting itself in the foot’ by continuing to talk about labour law reforms at the very time it was seeking to grow the economy and jobs.
Mr Maura said the mixed messages, stemming from different government branches, threatened to undermine already-fragile private sector confidence and the Government’s initiatives for sparking greater GDP expansion.
Mr Foulkes, emphasising there was no cause for alarm, said that of the FNM manifesto’s 13 labour-related commitments, around half required legislative changes while the rest involved policy actions.
He added that the Government was concentrating on moving its “non-contentious” campaign promises, such as empowering the Industrial Tribunal to be able to enforce its rulings, forward first.
“Most of the issues we are dealing with are non-contentious,” Mr Foulkes told Tribune Business. “Training and the apprenticeship programme with the IDB is something we are deliberating on [at the Tripartite Council].
“We have not had a substantial contentious issue that has come forward yet. Even though we’ve made several commitments in the manifesto, we have not brought them forward.
“It’s a balance. There are some issues, like dealing with the Industrial Tribunal and it having the ability to enforce its judgments, and establishing the industrial side of the Supreme Court, that are not controversial,” the Minister explained further.
“They’re basically administrative things that cause workers to access their rights in a timely fashion. It doesn’t affect the bottom line of any business house. I think there’s a middle position on most of these issues that both parties can be comfortable with.”
Mr Foulkes acknowledged the difficulties in striking a “balance” between the sometimes-competing needs of the private sector and labour, and confirmed that all matters would first be debated at the National Tripartite Council level.
“There is a balance that we have to strike in terms of making sure the workers get a decent salary and making sure they get decent benefits, but we also have to ensure the employer gets the productivity that’s necessary,” he added.”
Mr Foulkes recalled his first stint as Minister of Labour, which involved sometimes-heated talks between the private sector and trade unions that ultimately settled on the Bahamas’ first minimum wage of $150 per week.
“Once you get both parties around the table, you end up with a good result,” he added. “It may not please everyone, but everyone can live with it.”
Mr Foulkes also praised his predecessor as labour minister, Shane Gibson, for ensuring legislation was enacted to give “teeth” to the National Tripartite Council’s mandate.