In the interest of ensuring clarity, it is required that further attention be directed to the Guyana Trades Union Congress’ (GTUC) position that while the year-end bonus to public servants was welcome, it failed to adhere to Article 147 of the Guyana Constitution and Section 23 (1) of the Trade Union Recognition Act.
Article 147 enshrines the freedom to join a trade union and the right to collective bargaining. Section 23 (1) expressly states that where there exists trade union recognition the employer is obligated to treat with the union in good faith. Were there any doubt entertained about the role of the trade union in the nation’s body politic, Article 149 (C) of the constitution expressly grants this institution involvement “in the management and decision-making processes of the State.”
The government’s reaction to the GTUC’s position via Minister of Governance Raphael Trotman ought to be revisited. It ought to be noted where there is a collective bargaining agreement between employer and trade union, any change in working conditions, inclusive of pay ‒ be it bonus, salary/wage, or overtime rate ‒ forms part of the benefit package of the employees and requires the consent of the parties (ie, trade union and employer, and in this instance the government).
Under Guyana’s law, collective labour agreements are legally binding. Fundamental rights and freedoms (ie, human rights) operate in the here and now, are non-negotiable, and ought not to be treated with contempt. Article 147 and 149 (C) are so considered and where there is doubt, the section in which these articles are ensconced is titled ‘Protection of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of the Individual.’
It is unfortunate that before the Minister attempted a defence of the indefensible he did not seek counsel from jurists in the community who have distinguished themselves at home and abroad on matters pertaining to human rights and labour. The Minister would have been advised accordingly.
The government’s position that “maybe it is not a matter of law but of principle [to which it is] committed, but the system is of such that it will take time,” is acceptance that time was not taken to study and understand the system. The system of industrial relations has served this nation well since 1905 and when adhered to ensures a harmonious industrial environment. Industrial relations are guided by a body of principles, rules and laws, and these pillars stand collectively, not independently of each other.
Where it is expressed that the government did not want to engage in any protracted negotiations, fearing the possibility that the bonus may not have been paid until December 2016, it ought to be said that there is no collective labour agreement stipulating a timeframe as to direct engagement between the parties. Apart from the statement being callous, it points to a concern that if the government had reservations about time constraints, it failed to draw on precedents where trade unions worked with government/employers to hammer out agreements under tight time constraints to avert industrial conflict. As such the attempted justification can be viewed as contempt for the trade unions in the public service and a cavalier treatment of the law.
Contrary to the minister’s view, government could not have operated in the workers’ best interest since government did not see engagement/involvement as necessary and just. To correctly acknowledge we live in a society that has been broken for decades, yet at the same time engage in action that widens the breach, constitutes double standards or support for the inherited pervasive lawlessness.
There seems to be a disconnect or attempt to act out of concert with the President, who only recently in reaction to the anti-crime programme, called for the upholding of the law. Where cabinet members, who are advisers to the President, are acting out of sync with the President’s clear and unambiguous position on matters that border on time-honoured principles, rule of law and rights, they contribute to endless problems in the society.
This is a grave matter and ought to be treated with the seriousness it deserves. There is nothing wrong in accepting an error in judgement or in decision-making. Our politics must mature to the level that when a mistake is made, attention is drawn to it, it is acknowledged, corrected, and learning had from the experience as we move forward. This government is reminded that citizens and organisations are committed to working with them in bringing about good governance, inclusive of them being held to account. Further, it ought to pay heed and be mindful of growing concerns by supporters and well-wishers that members of the administration are tone deaf.