By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
TRADE unions were yesterday warned to put their finances in order or face being 'struck off' if they fail to file their annual returns by June 1.
The Department of Labour, in a statement, served notice of its intention to enforce the Industrial Relations Act's requirements, and warned the "many" trade unions not currently in compliance - and making "no efforts" to do so - they have less then four months to reform their ways.
"Many of the existing trade unions are also not in compliance with Section 30 of the Industrial Relations Act, which requires them to submit annual returns to the Registrar of Trade Unions by June 1 annually," the Department said.
"A current list of compliant trade unions will be published annually, shortly after the annual June 1 deadline passes. The Department will also provide a Certificate of Compliance that will be valid for one calendar year. This will certify the Union's status with the Department of Labour pursuant to the Industrial Relations Act."
And the Department warned: "The Registrar of Trade Unions has compiled a list of trade unions to be struck from the register, which will include unions that are not in compliance and those that are not making efforts to rectify their position.
"The Regulatory and Compliance Unit of the Department of Labour looks forward to the support and full compliance of all trade unions, and hopes that these processes provide for greater transparency and accountability in the trade union community."
The Department of Labour is thus moving to enforce long-standing laws that have seemingly been applied consistently, or not at all, in the past.
Dion Foulkes, minister of labour, said he was "happy" to see Robert Farquharson, director of labour, moving on the issue, but said he was unable to speak in detail on the matter so as not to prejudice the appeals process open to aggrieved trade unions.
He explained that, as minister, he was the first 'point of appeal' for the unions, but nevertheless "congratulated" Mr Farquharson and a special assistant seconded to the Department from the Attorney General's Office, Yolanda Yallup, for their work on the issue. "There really is no explanation as to why this was not done before," Mr Foulkes told Tribune Business. "The laws were recently amended, so that may have something to do with it."
The Department's move was yesterday also backed by the Chamber of Commerce's chief executive, with the private sector organisation having called for the Government to enforce the Industrial Relations Act provisions mandating the annual filing of union returns last year.
The Chamber's call, made at the height of the controversy surrounding the Christie administration's proposed labour law reforms, provoked a furious response from trade unions.
However, Edison Sumner yesterday said those unions that filed to file their annual returns needed to either "comply or get out of the game". "We wrote or put that into our position, and made it very clear in our submission when we were having the review of the labour laws, the Employment Act and Industrial Relations Act," Mr Sumner recalled.
"Unions have to comply with the rules the same way the rest of us do. The Chamber, even though it's a non-profit, non-government organisation, there are certain requirements the Chamber has to fulfill, filing annual statements with the Registrar General's Office.
"If you're going to operate in this country... you ought to comply. If you say you want to represent workers in this country you have to comply and, if not, let due process take its course. I know the criticism the Chamber had for it, but it's a simple thing. You either comply with the rule of law, or get out of the game."
The Chamber, in a December 20, 2016, letter to Mr Farquharson, had urged: "Section 39 of the Industrial Relations Act be amended to make it unlawful for trade unions who fail and/or refuse to file their annual returns to continue to exist.
"These annual returns should be audited by a licensed member of the Bahamas Institute of Chartered Accountants (BICA). It is proposed that trade unions be fined for this failure."
The Chamber then added: "Moreover, the Act should be amended to make provisions for trade unions who are insolvent to have their registration cancelled immediately or incur some other penalty."
Labour leaders responded by demanding that employers be held to the "same standard". Bernard Evans, the National Congress of Trade Unions (NCTUB) president, told Tribune Business then that should such measures be imposed on trade unions then employers should suffer the same fate for failing to pay taxes and National Insurance Board (NIB) contributions.
And Zane Lightbourne, a prominent Bahamas Union of Teachers (BUT) officer, wrote that the Chamber's proposals represented unwarranted interference in internal union affairs, and would further expose Bahamian workers to ill-treatment by employers.
Yet Mr Sumner reiterated yesterday: "The Chamber, being the employer's representative, has gone through an extensive vetting process, updating documents and corporate information to ensure we comply with the law.
"If we're required to do it, being a private sector organisation and the employer's representative in the country, then the unions purporting to represent workers in the country ought to comply with the law when it comes to filing returns to the Government."
The Department of Labour's release also served notice of its intent to implement a 2012 Industrial Relations Act amendment that makes Mr Farquharson, in his dual capacity as registrar of trade unions, responsible for vetting and registering all industrial agreements.
"Prior to the enactment of the 2012 amendment to the Industrial Relations Act, the Industrial Tribunal was responsible for vetting and registration of all industrial agreements in the country," the Department said. "The Registrar of Trade Unions would witness the agreement prior to it being sent to the Industrial Tribunal.
"However, since the amendment to the Act, the Registrar of Trade Unions has been statutorily mandated to vet and register all industrial agreements, and therefore no longer witness agreements being signed.
"As a result, the Department is now responsible for ensuring that all trade unions submitting agreements adhere to the requirements that will involve completion of an Industrial Agreement submission form with attestation of all parties, specific submission requirements for industrial agreement drafts and requisite notarization."
Explaining the move, Mr Farquharson said: "The process has been put in place to ensure compliance by all trade unions, and to safeguard against any deficiencies with regard to the Industrial Relations Act."