* TUC boss warns hard to find new jobs
* 'Pushing' to treat COVID as job injury
* Labour laws not designed for pandemic
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A trade union leader yesterday urged frustrated hotel employees and other furloughed workers to "hang in there" and not seek termination packages due to the difficulty many will have finding new jobs.
Obie Ferguson, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) president and prominent labour attorney, told Tribune Business that while full severance payments were tempting to those enduring COVID-19 induced hardship they could ultimately endanger their longer-term welfare by accepting them.
He warned that the pandemic's economic impact, which has forced multiple businesses to close and/or furlough and permanently sever staff, makes it "much more difficult" for Bahamian workers to obtain alternative employment should they opt to press for full redundancy.
While the plight of furloughed workers, especially given the continued uncertainty surrounding the tourism industry's re-opening and cuts in government-funded unemployment benefit, was recently highlighted by the protest from Atlantis workers, Mr Ferguson said taking severance packages could effectively be equivalent to taking short-term gain for long-term pain.
"If I had to advise them, it would be my position that they ought to try and work with the employer that they have with a view to maintaining their jobs, and to make whatever adjustments are necessary to enable them to be ready to be available to be reinstated once the hotels open up in November, December," the TUC chief told this newspaper.
"It's going to be much more difficult if they take the redundancy and leave. It's going to be much more difficult for them to find a job. Hang on, things will get better. We just have to comply with the protocols. Until there is a vaccine, or whatever they call it, the COVID-19 protocols should be strictly adhered to and they should hang in there because when the hotels open up they will have their jobs.
"They will not have to apply for new jobs. If they resign or take redundancy packages, to me it makes it much more difficult to regularise their economic situation. The company can say you didn't want to stay in difficult times, and we have to find new employees. That will have a devastating effect on a number of homes. I would suggest they hang in there."
Many furloughed workers, who have been without jobs and much - if not all - of their income for the past seven months will likely retort that what Mr Ferguson is advising is easier said than done.
However, he added that the 2017 reforms to the Employment Act - made after Sandals Royal Bahamian closed down temporarily and laid-off its then-workforce, in what some saw as a clear case of union-busting - mandate that existing staff must have "first option" to go back whenever an employer re-opens for business.
While unable to pinpoint the exact amendment because he did not have the Act in front of him, Mr Ferguson said: "Even though the employees have a right to redundancy, there is an obligation in the present Act, through the 2017 amendment, that makes provision for them to be given the first option if there is re-establishment of that particular company.
"Even if they take the redundancy, there is a provision that provides for them to be given first option for re-employment. That's the spirit and intent of the Act. Those persons who have to take redundancy, if there company re-opens they ought to be given first precedent."
Mr Ferguson was in accord with Peter Goudie, the Chamber of Commerce's labour chief, who agreed: "It makes no sense to me why anybody wants their severance pay when there are no jobs. I don't know what else to say.
"You can take your severance pay and it might be six months or less than that. What are you going to do after that when there are no jobs? Why is it you want severance or redundancy pay but there's no jobs out there? I just don't get it, I just don't get it. It doesn't make any sense to me."
However, in a move that is likely to alarm employers who can ill-afford even the slightest potential cost increase, Mr Ferguson said he and the trade union movement will be "pushing" for legal reforms that treat COVID-19 workplace cases as equivalent to "an industrial injury".
Arguing that the National Insurance and Employment Acts had never anticipated a situation such as COVID-19, he told Tribune Business: "We will certainly be putting forward something to the Government that this pandemic be classified as an industrial injury.
"It's like you have an accident on the job. It's classified as an industrial incident, and you get compensation from NIB and the employer. The NIB Act does not anticipate this type of pandemic situation we are experiencing. If the worker contracts it, they are sent home and will be off the job for 14 days. Who will pay for that?
"You have to make provision for that in law for it to take effect. That's a little onerous on the worker. One of the things we are going to be pursuing is we want to make sure it becomes law. I'm certain businesses will react to it, but I think it's a fair and equitable thing to do in this set of circumstances."
Mr Ferguson, noting that employers are responsible for maintaining a healthy and safe workplace, argued that existing legislation was not specific enough when it came to COVID-19. "The law should be amended to bring clarity to all, and workers know what processes to follow to address that situation," he added.