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posted 15 May 2020, 13:32 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 15 May 2020, 13:43 ]
Say goodbye to the old “normal” and hello to the “new normal”. But in whose image is the “new normal” going to be created?

We are already getting a taste of what is in store.

The NWU has one example of an employer cutting the pay of staff by 50% and then on top of that reducing hours from 40 a week down to 20. Having effectively cut pay by 75%, this employer promptly made eight workers redundant and based their severance calculations on the reduced pay.

Not satisfied with that, this employer also decided that the 45 days’ notice required by the Retrenchment and Severance Benefits Act (RSBA) was far too much and has unilaterally decided to change the law by only giving 14 days.

Have you ever been Zoomed? The NWU is now dealing with an employer that has done a disciplinary on-line. No witnesses. No right of representation. First you get zoomed, then you get zapped! It’s what they call entrepreneurial innovation.

We know this is the tip of the iceberg. Our response must be clear:

● COVID-19 does not change the law

● Workers’ rights still exist

● Workers must not bear the brunt of COVID-19 as employers slash and burn their way to a “new normal”

It is important that unions go back to basics and do not get side-tracked by Covid-19 arguments.

A contract of employment cannot be unilaterally changed by the employer. Cuts in pay and hours of work are a breach of contract and open the door to the argument that this is an industrial relations offence. It is important that workers write to their employer saying they do not agree with changes to their pay or hours. Develop a paper trail of resistance and then find a union.

Covid-19 is not a catchall excuse to declare redundancies. We have to ask the questions: is it a genuine redundancy? Have the proper selection procedures been used? Have the correct severance payments been made? It is important that the Retrenchment and Severance Benefits Act be updated. Remember Arcelor Mittal! We can generate Public Health Regulations within 24 hours so it can be done.

Covid or not, employers cannot dismiss a worker “just so”. Employers cannot terminate a worker “without cause” and have to follow proper industrial relations procedures. Natural justice is alive and well and does not need a ventilator.

But information from a survey conducted by the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers Association suggests widespread arbitrary dismissals. Their survey suggests “As a result of the country’s COVID-19 mitigation measures, 36% of businesses have terminated full-time employees and 55% of businesses have terminated part-time or contractual employees.” Working from home and staying at home are two very different concepts. Each dismissal must be challenged.

Employers will have learnt a thing or two during the lockdown. Can they keep production going with fewer workers? Can they introduce new shift patterns? This is the employers’ opportunity to embark on a major restructuring exercise and the labour movement must be prepared.

Trade unions fought hard for occupational safety and health legislation. The employer has a legal responsibility to provide a safe working environment which is given even more significance in the face of a phased return to work. Social distancing at the workplace and proper PPE are an employer’s responsibility. Section 15 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act provides the mechanisms for stopping work to protect lives in an unsafe situation.

The war on Covid-19 is ongoing. The war on workers’ rights is about to find a new ferocity. To defeat the global Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organisation says “test, test, test”. To defeat the global employers’ offensive, the labour movement must “fight, fight, fight”.

Keep safe! The struggle continues!
Gerry Kangalee,
15 May 2020, 13:37