By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A trade union leader yesterday branded the coronavirus as "the worst catastrophe" Bahamian workers have ever faced due to the uncertainty over how long it will last.
Obie Ferguson, pictured, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) president, told Tribune Business that the situation had exposed what he described as a legal loophole in that there are no provisions in Bahamian statute mandating that employers continue to fully pay staff who have been sent home on a temporary furlough.
He added that the crisis has also highlighted the need for Bahamian workers to engage in better financial planning, and to save a portion of what they earn, rather than persist with "pay cheque to pay cheque" living that leaves them vulnerable to a global pandemic.
"I think this is probably the worst situation we have experienced in terms of the impact on the worker," Mr Ferguson told this newspaper. "It's very serious. I think it is the worst catastrophe we would have experienced as workers. It's going to have a serious effect on the Bahamian workforce.
"We do not have a mechanism in place for dealing with situations like this. I've had a couple of companies call me to ask me what they could or should do in cases like this, asking what my position is legally with respect to those persons they have to let got for the time being and if there is an obligation to pay them when they're at home.
"We in The Bahamas have no provision for dealing with that kind of situation. We do not have, in our industrial relations system, a mechanism to deal with that. Companies may deal with it individually, but there's no statute law requiring the employer to pay."
Mr Ferguson said typical redundancy, lay-off and termination pay mechanisms in legislation such as the Employment Act did not come into play in situations where employers are only sending staff home on a temporary basis until the coronavirus pandemic passes and normal business levels resume.
Whether workers are paid in full, partially or not at all will likely depend on their employer's generosity and financial position, the TUC chief added. "It's a very difficult situation. Unless the Government intervenes the employer is not obliged to do it," Mr Ferguson said.
"I've had a number of workers call me from Grand Bahama, Exuma, inquiring what could happen. But most industrial agreements don't envisage something like what is happening now. That's just not a consideration for the parties at the negotiating table. That's just not there.
"The most we can do is be our brother's keeper. You cannot enforce the law if there is no law to enforce. We must encourage companies to make some kind of contribution."
Mr Ferguson added that the COVID-19 crisis had reinforced the importance of Bahamian workers both escaping "pay cheque to pay cheque" living, and building up savings to protect them against future crises.
"If this goes on for two months that's a long time because most workers live from pay cheque to pay cheque," he told Tribune Business. "I really encourage Bahamians to save 'x' amount of dollars every week so that they have some savings to deal with these types of situation. You need to save, save your wages, or at least a part of it, in anticipation of these kinds of situations.
"This [the coronavirus] hits their pay cheque directly, the company's revenue and profitability. If there's no revenue, the company closes its door and there's no wages. It's almost guaranteed we're going to go into a recession.
"A company contacted me and said they were closing down because the cruise ships were not coming in for four weeks. If the cruise ships don't come, the company closes down, and the worker can;'t go to work and get paid. It's very serious unfortunately."