By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Trade unions want companies to be hit with a $5,000 per day fine if they fail to start industrial agreement talks within 45 days, with one leader urging employers to accept “full responsibility” for the worker-friendly reforms being imposed upon them.
The latest batch of Employment and Industrial Relations Act reforms recommended by the unions, which have been seen by Tribune Business, would - if passed - affect all employees in a unionised workplace regardless of whether they are members of the bargaining unit.
The joint March 23 proposal from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and National Congress of Trade Unions (NCTU) calls for the imposition of ‘agency shop’ conditions, where salary deductions equivalent to 90 per cent of union dues are taken from non-union members in the same workplace to cover ‘collective bargaining’ costs.
Obie Ferguson, the Trades Union Congress’s (TUC)president, told Tribune Business that “a certain number of employers” had only themselves to blame for the Government’s renewed bid to impose statutory controls on workplace relations.
He accused the private sector of “raising hell” only after bringing problems upon itself, pointing to the failure of both the Sandals and Melia resorts to honour what he described as conventional practice governing employer-union relations.
Mr Ferguson also questioned why Bahamian employers were “so concerned” about many of the proposed reforms, arguing that they impacted trade unions rather than companies directly.
“I think the employers in the Bahamas - not all of them, but at least a certain number of them - must take full responsibility for these changes coming into being,” the TUC president told Tribune Business.
“Years ago, if an industrial agreement expired, the employer and union agreed the terms continued until a new one was negotiated. The proposed Bills are making this statutory, and only because of what transpired in the workplace.
“Where we have a union that is duly recognised, the employer should sit down and negotiate a position both can live with. It only becomes a problem if one side is intransigent and refuses to negotiate. Sandals was not negotiating in good faith; the Privy Council said so.”
Sandals last summer terminated its near-600 workforce without warning, on the grounds that its Royal Bahamian property needed to close for several months to undergo $4 million of critical maintenance works.
The move came as the resort chain was embroiled in an increasingly bitter dispute with the Bahamas Hotel, Maintenance and Allied Workers Union (BHMAWU), which claimed Sandals was refusing to negotiate an industrial agreement with it - despite it being recognised as bargaining agent for line staff.
Within weeks of the August 2016 terminations, Sandals began recruiting a new Royal Bahamian workforce that was largely composed of new hires, leading many to suspect the whole exercise had been about ‘union busting’.
“Now they’re raising hell because it’s a requirement in this new Bill that they inform the unions and the employees [of planned redundancies], which is the way it ought to be and used to be, even when there was no legal requirement to notify the union,” Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business.
“Most of the things employers are complaining about, I’m rather surprised to see the reaction, as most of this involves the unions. Redundancy is a concern of the employers, but outside that they shouldn’t be so concerned about that.”
Mr Ferguson said the trade unions “took advantage” of the employer opposition to the Bills, and their demand for further consultation, to submit more recommendations of their own to the Government.
The TUC and NCTU are now calling for amendments to the Industrial Relations Act, which would force employers to start collective bargaining talks within 45 days of receiving a trade union’s industrial agreement proposal, to be given enforcement teeth.
“Impose a penalty of $5,000 a day for failure to negotiate after 45 days,” the joint TUC-NCTU paper of March 23 demands.
Explaining the rationale for this, Mr Ferguson said: “We feel there should be some penalties for not negotiating industrial agreements in good faith.
“The proposal is that after 45 days, the employer must meet with you to discuss your proposal. What we’re saying is that if they refuse to meet after 45 days, there should be some encouragement to negotiate in good faith.”
The trade unions also urge the Government to enable the Industrial Tribunal to hear, and rule on, cases where there is a dispute between employer and union over industrial agreement negotiations.
“The best route is to make the Industrial Tribunal, the industrial side of the Supreme Court, thus giving it the authority to enforce its ruling and adjudicate, and determine general disputes where there is a bargaining impasse,” the TUC-NCTU paper said.
The unions also want the Industrial Relations Act reforms to make provision for ‘agency shop’, which would force non-union members to pay sums out of their wages to cover collective bargaining costs incurred by the union.
“Amend section 47A to read, where recognition of a union has been granted, then agency shop deductions (90 per cent of dues) shall be deducted from the wages of non-members contained within the bargaining unit,” the NCTU-TUC proposals stated.
Mr Ferguson said the unions also wanted the threshold for approving an ‘agency shop’ arrangement, which currently stands at 60 per cent of bargaining unit members, to be reduced to ‘50 per cent plus one’.
He also argued that it was “not fair and equitable” for non-union members to receive the same benefits as bargaining unit members without contributing financially to the arrangement/negotiations.
The NCTU-TUC proposal also wants the Employment Act’s definition of ‘basic pay’ to be replaced by ‘wages’, and for the latter’s definition to “include all forms of compensation”.
“Where an employer provides a gratuity and non-contributory pension for an employee, the employee is entitled to redundancy pay, the gratuity and non-contributory pension,” the unions urged. “This benefit is now being enjoyed by workers.”
Mr Ferguson said the Act currently did not include commissions in the definition of ‘wages’, despite the Privy Council ruling that they did in ex-Imperial Life employee, John Hanna’s, battle with the now defunct insurer.