Opposition boycotts debate
The government yesterday moved ahead with a controversial amendment to the trade union laws, which was passed in the House despite concerns about its legality.
The opposition, PNCR, AFC and GAP-ROAR, boycotted the parliamentary debate of the Trade Union Recognition (Amendment) Bill 2008 after an unsuccessful attempt to secure a deferral in keeping with a request by the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC). The union umbrella body said it was not consulted on the legislation and wrote Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, leader of the government in the house, requesting a postponement of the second reading of the bill on that basis.
Opposition leader Robert Corbin said a legal challenge would be mounted, while GTUC President Gillian Burton, who observed the proceedings, called the government’s actions a travesty. General Secretary of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG), Kenneth Joseph, however, welcomed the new legislation, saying that it seeks to democratise the trade union movement and by extending recognition status and authority to the legitimate representative organisations.
The bill amends the Trade Union Recognition Act of 1997, providing for “the most representative” organisations of workers and employers to be consulted by the Minister of Labour for the appointments of members of the Trade Union Recognition and Certification Board.
The most representative organisation of workers and employers will also have to be consulted in the Board’s making of its rules instead of the most representative association of trade unions and employers. It could mean the ousting of the TUC from the ambit of the union recognition law and its replacement with FITUG – heightening the divisions that have bedevilled the labour movement for several decades and signalling a historic shift that unions close to the government have been trying to secure for many years.
Speaker of the National Assembly Ralph Ramkarran was called upon to intervene by members of the opposition, who sought to get a deferral on the grounds that the GTUC was not consulted in keeping with the guidelines set out in the constitution. Corbin said that under Article 13 of the Constitution, the GTUC should have been consulted and said he was appalled that there was no attempt to do so since the last reading of the bill was put off.
Corbin said since the parliament was subject to constitutional guidelines it would be out of order to proceed in obvious breach of the requirement that there be consultation. AFC MP Khemraj Ramjattan also argued that the specific rights of trade unions once guaranteed by Article 11 and now included in Article 13, indicated a legitimate expectation that it should have been consulted on a matter of primary importance to their members. He added that there was a right to challenge such a breach of constitutional procedure.
Facing empty opposition seats, Labour Minister Manzoor Nadir piloted the bill through its final stages, saying that it would ensure that the “real voices of workers” are heard by bringing the union recognition law in line with international norms and conventions that speak of the “most representative” organisation of workers. He added that the new provisions would also improve the functioning of the Board.
The original law stipulated that the Minister consult the most representative association of trade unions and employers, which has been the GTUC. “The present situation has handcuffed us into dealing with the GTUC,” Nadir said, observing that not all the workers voices are being heard. “We want to ensure we deal with the true voice of labour when we do consultations,” he added.
While acknowledging that the GTUC has done yeoman work over the years as well as its role in the struggle for workers’ rights, he noted that the movement has become fractured and no longer represents the majority of workers. According to Nadir, of the approximately 250,000 workers who make up the labour force, roughly 20% or 50,000 are unionised. He explained that the FITUG, which comprises GAWU, NAACIE, CCWU and the GLU, has a registered membership of 34,000 (Joseph put the figure at 36,000) against the GTUC that comprises 13 unions with a membership of 15,000. He based the figures on stats provided by the registrar of unions as well as the auditor general’s office. Also, he pointed out that FITUG has been consulted in its representative capacity by the opposition as well as members of the donor community, while the employers’ organisation, the Consultative Association of Guyanese Industry (CAGI), recognised the need to include the union in the tripartite consultations.
Ramkarran said while observing constitutional rules was of paramount importance, the Standing Orders do not require the National Assembly to determine constitutionality of process relating to any legislation before it is taken through its second reading. “The National Assembly cannot usurp the function of the judiciary,” he said, advising that the courts would be the most suitable place to determine questions that were raised about constitutionality.
Corbin said the PNCR would not be part of a process it believed was unconstitutional and said it would challenge it in the court.
As a result, Nadir recounted detailed repeated attempts in 2007 and 2008 to get input from the GTUC on the legislation. He reminded that while another version of the bill had been tabled during the last parliamentary session, renewed attempts were made to engage the union before the tabling of the current bill.
“If we do not change the way we define the voices of the workers we are not going to do justice to the democracy we are speaking about,” he declared.
Additionally, PPP/C MP Komal Chand in supporting the bill said it would “end the GTUC monopoly” on nominating members to the Board, which he described as a concern (Chand is also General Secretary of GAWU); while PPP/C MP Norman Whittaker assured that it was not a “ploy to eliminate small unions.” He said: “The right of the worker is the focus of the bill and if that is the interest of the TUC we should not have dissension.” PPP/C MP Odinga Lumumba also spoke in support of the bill. Chand’s union GAWU, along with NAACIE, have been at the forefront of a campaign to eliminate so-called paper unions from the TUC in the selection of delegates at TUC conferences. This would have potentially enabled GAWU’s candidate to head the TUC for the first time ever. Those initiatives never bore fruit and it appears that FITUG will now be the officially recognised union body.
Meanwhile, in a statement yesterday Joseph dubbed the GTUC a “paper union” and described its response to the bill as “predictable,” noting that all the consultations that it seeks would not erase the verifiable fact that FITUG is the overwhelming worker-representation organisation. He said: “The minority GTUC, with many affiliates not all bona-fide, full-fledged, audited trade unions, is bound to feel its phony credentials and current status threatened by the imminent legislation which is intended to simplify but significantly shift the criteria for consultation by the Minister of Labour for the appointments of members of the Trade Union Recognition and Certification Board.”
Joseph said the legislation would redress many of the imbalances and shortcomings of the previous law and indicated that FITUG is confident the law reposes recognition of the majority of organisations truly representative of the nation’s workers.
“Because the new Act will bestow on the genuine workers’ organisations the right to the highest recognition and representation in terms of the more just conditionalities to be followed by the Recognition and Certification Board,” he added.
Once operational, the new law will also increase the period for the Board to determine an application for certification by a trade union from two to four months and unions would only be allowed to strike if no decision has been made within that time.
Further, sections of the current Act that require the intervention of the representative association of trade unions in relation to situations where two or more unions apply for certification for the same bargaining unit will be repealed.