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Union Chief Hails ‘Night And Day’ Labour Change

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Obie Ferguson

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) president yesterday accused the former Minnis administration of committing “an unforgivable sin” as he hailed a “night and day” difference in labour relations.

Obie Ferguson told Tribune Business that the previous government had been “very hostile” in its attitude towards, and treatment of, trade unions and working Bahamians. Besides preventing the Labour Day motorcade this year on the basis it would aid COVID-19’s spread, he also cited a legal appeal made by the Grand Lucayan’s holding company as a further cause of discontent.

“It’s known to The Bahamas, and Bahamian workers, that we experienced a very hostile, disrespectful relationship with the former government,” he blasted. “Labour Day is one of the most sacred days for labour, for workers of our country, and we were denied a motorcade. That is an unforgivable sin.”

Mr Ferguson contrasted that with the general election campaign held barely months later, where the supporters of both the Free National Movement (FNM) and Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) were permitted to hold motorcades and drive-in rallies unlike the unions on Labour Day.

And he also lashed out over the Government-owned Lucayan Renewal Holdings filing a legal challenge with the Court of Appeal “seeking to have the court declare that an employer can terminate, or lay-off, a worker without pay. That was taking it too far”.

While Mr Ferguson cited this as an example of the former administration’s allegedly uncaring approach to Bahamian workers, Tribune Business previously reported that the Grand Lucayan’s legal move was designed to have far less serious consequences than the TUC president believed.

This newspaper obtained confirmation that the Grand Lucayan’s motion was only concerned with temporary - and not permanent - lay-offs as happened during the COVID-19 crisis peak last year. And the case has yet to be heard.

The motion, filed in response to the Bahamas Hotel Managerial Association’s (BHMA) appeal against a Supreme Court judgment won by the Grand Lucayan’s government-owned operator, is asking the Court of Appeal to clarify whether the Employment (Amendment) Act 2017 allows an employer to lay-off an employee temporarily without any pay.

“Properly construed, section 28 of the Employment (Amendment) Act 2017 effected a change to the common law and conferred on an employer the right to lay-off an employee without pay,” it read.

Mr Ferguson’s stance is also likely to be influenced by the labour-friendly Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that the then-opposition PLP agreed with the unions prior to the general election. This “pledged” a PLP government to raising the redundancy cap to 24 months through changes to the Employment Act once elected to office.

And, as “a matter of fundamental principle”, it commits a PLP government to “declaring its unequivocal support for trade unions in the workplace, including automatic agency shop”. Agency shop, which is viewed as protecting a union’s security, would result in non-union members in a particular workplace paying service fees to the union to cover costs associated with collective bargaining agreements the latter secures.

Agency shop agreements are highly-regulated in developed countries, and the US Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that such deals are invalid in the public sector for that country. However, the PLP-union MoU commits both sides to altering the Employment Act’s section 42 such that agency shop becomes “automatic” once a trade union is recognised as the sole bargaining agent for a workplace.

Other areas where the unions and a PLP government have agreed to work together on changing laws and regulations “where necessary and possible” include “allowing for at least 16 hours of rest between shifts for each employee”.

They also plan to “redefine wages to include all forms of income, including tips and gratuities”, and will look at several other potential changes to the Employment Act. These include amending section 26 (4), so that employees are entitled to redundancy pay, gratuity and a pension in cases where the employer provides a non-contributory pension.

And the PLP-union MoU also commits the parties to assessing if the Act’s section 29 can be changed so that redundancy/dismissal is based on wages instead of basic pay.

Mr Ferguson yesterday likened the differences between the current and former administration to “night and day”, adding: “The difference is very, very significant. We’re having meetings with the Government, and in order to solve any problems you need to have meetings.

“You need to respect the workers, the working people, meet their representatives, listen to them, consult with them on matters that are going to affect more than 220,000 Bahamians. The former government said they don’t believe in unions. We have about 33 unions in The Bahamas approximately.

“We are meeting and we are accomplishing some things. That couldn’t have been accomplished under the former administration because they never met with us..... There’s no union in the TUC that could come out legitimately and say things have not changed. That speaks volumes to us.”

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