I have noticed recently certain positions taken by the Ministry of Labour that clearly establish bias, a perception that should be avoided at all costs, because of the ministry’s impartial and conciliatory role in handling disputes between employers and trade unions.
Labour disputes are not clear-cut issues such as failing to stop at a major road where the law in terms of penalty is clear and unambiguous. Labour disputes are subject to different interpretations and the role of the ministry as conciliator is to advise on the rightfulness or not of the respective party’s position in order to achieve a consensus outcome, failing which a deadlock is declared and the parties advised to apply for arbitration in keeping with their agreement. In other words the role is more advisory based on experience and knowledge of the laws, with the ultimate objective of nudging the parties towards a settlement. The ministry does have powers of enforcement against employers for breaches of the law under the Labour Act, but taking a definitive position in favour of one party on issues that are clearly contentious in nature can lead to a position of inflexibility by the disfavoured party, obviously evident in both the GGMC and UG strikes. And accusing the unions of violating fundamental industrial relations principles will not help to resolve the problem. It is an accepted norm that no employer would negotiate under duress while there is a strike, so, why confirm it in writing by deeming it illegal – another contentious issue.
On the other hand, dismissals as a dispute are subject to litigation where a judge may rule differently from the ministry, hence the need to avoid making recommendations at conciliation.
The GAWU and GuySuCo dismissal is now engaging the attention of the courts. Hopefully, the outcome will vindicate the recommendation of the Ministry of Labour.