Ministry ‘appoints’ arbitrator for teachers talks

-GTU incensed, threatens to resume strike

Leyland Lucas (DPI photo)

The Ministry of Social Protection (MoSP) has been accused of misinterpreting Guyana’s Labour laws in an attempt to bully the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) into accepting an arbitrarily appointed Chair of the Arbitration Panel on the wage dispute between the union and the Ministry of Education (MoE).

Meanwhile the union has proclaimed that if within seven days they and the Ministry cannot agree on a chair, teachers will restart strike action.

During a meeting at the Department of Labour yesterday, Minister Keith Scott and Chief Labour Officer Charles Ogle claimed to have “appointed” academic Leyland Lucas as Chair of the arbitration panel.

According to a Department of Public Information article on the issue, Scott stated that “those acts of appointing the chairman is placed squarely, after the breakdown of the two sides, in the province of the Ministry of Social Protection. It’s not a question of acceptance or rejection. We have gone ahead, acted in accordance with the law and we have chosen the person who in our opinion happens to be the best.”

However veteran trade unionist Lincoln Lewis maintains that this is not what the law prescribes. He explained that Section 4 of Labour Act grants the Minister the power to “appoint” an arbitrator in the case of a compulsory arbitration but since the GTU and MoE have consented to a voluntary arbitration the terms of the Memorandum of Agreement between these two parties govern the arbitration. These terms specifically state that the Minister may “nominate” a chair. 

“This is voluntary not compulsory arbitration. Both sides have decided they are going to arbitration so in this case he can’t appoint an arbitrator. Both parties have agreed that they going to arbitration so he can nominate not appoint in keeping with the memorandum they signed,” Lewis explained.

Section 4(C) specifically grants the Minister the power to “with the consent of both parties to the difference, or of either of them, or without their consent, refer the matter for settlement to the arbitration of an arbitration tribunal consisting of more than one persons appointed by the Minister except that the Minister shall not refer a difference for settlement to arbitration otherwise than with the consent of both parties to the difference, unless he notifies the parties that he is satisfied that the continuance of the difference is likely to be gravely injurious to the national interest”.

The terms of resumption signed by GTU and MoE following a nine-day strike seems to support Lewis’ analysis.

According to the terms within 24 hours after full resumption the parties will meet to determine the terms of reference for the Arbitration Panel, as guided by the 1990 Memorandum of Agreement between the MoE and the GTU.

The Memorandum of Agreement between the MoE and GTU for the avoidance and settlement of disputes specifically states “the arbitration panel shall comprise of one member nominated by the union, one member nominated by the Ministry and a Chairman mutually agreed upon by both parties. The Ministry of Labour shall nominate the chairman in the event the parties fail to reach agreement.” 

The actions of the Ministry have also been condemned by the GTU which has reiterated that they do not trust Scott or Minister Amna Ally.

In a letter to Ogle seen by Stabroek News, GTU General Secretary Coretta McDonald states that the Minister’s decision to appoint and attempt to introduce a chairman to GTU at the meeting of September 25, 2018 will go down as another endeavour to bully the Union into accepting someone whose political and employment agenda cannot be ascertained.

She stressed that for the union the Labour Department headed by Scott cannot be trusted to arbitrarily nominate a chairman for the Arbitration Tribunal.

Out of courtesy

“The Union’s position was made clear from the first day of Conciliatory talks between the two parties. The Chief Labour Officer was informed that the Union’s presence was out of courtesy since we had lost all confidence in the Department of Labour headed by Minister Keith Scott,” the letter notes.

Evidence in support of this position was presented in the utterances of Ministers Ally and Scott at negotiations on August 9th, 2018 as well as their subsequent presence at both meetings and the pronouncements of Ogle contained in the minutes of the second meeting of August 16, 2018.

McDonald argued that these confirmed that the Department of Labour was not an unbiased party to the negotiations while the utterances of Minister Scott to the media that “teachers are selfish and uncaring” cannot make him an unbiased Minister given his earlier involvement and subsequent media outburst.

Consequently the union demanded that the two parties:  MOE and GTU mutually agree on the chairmanship as given in the Memorandum of Agreement. They have also put the Ministry of Social Protection on notice that that they will allow seven days for the two parties to mutually agree on the Chairman, failing which industrial action will resume.

Since 2015, the union has been attempting to negotiate a multi-year salary and non-salary benefit package with the APNU+AFC government but negotiations have dragged on. An October, 2017 breakdown in negotiations and a declaration by the union that its members would proceed on strike led to an intervention by President David Granger, who set up a High Level Task Force to continue negotiations and reach a consensus.

The Task Force met for five months and recommended that Cabinet consider granting teachers a 40% increase on 2015 salaries and a 5% increase for each of the four remaining years of the agreement. However, citing the high cost of the recommended increase, $4 billion for teachers and $10 billion if extended to all public servants, the administration rejected the report of the Task Force as deficient.

Teachers were instead offered a $700 million ball park figure for 2018 salary increases. This was rejected and the GTU decided to engage in strike action beginning in the pre-term on August 27th.

The strike action gained momentum on the first day of the school year with thousands of teachers withdrawing their services and taking to the streets to protest as the number of teachers engaged in strike action increased every day, the Ministry signaled its intention to agree to the union’s demand to proceed to arbitration and the two parties met to decide the Terms of Reference and agree on a chairperson.

The union had proposed former Minister of Foreign Affairs Rashleigh Jackson, former Minister of Education Jeffrey Thomas and Dr. Aubrey Armstrong as possible chairs, but they were all rejected “without reason” by ministry representatives.

Armstrong is best known for his chairmanship of the 1999 Arbitration Tribunal between the Guyana Public Service Union, the Federated Union of Government Employees and the Government of Guyana.

The MoE, for its part, proposed Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Public Telecommunications Derrick Cummings, and Glendon Harris, the Human Resources Manager of the Guyana Revenue Authority.

According to GTU President Mark Lyte, these men were rejected by the union on the basis that they are serving members of the public service, hence government functionaries. Therefore, to select either as chair is to create a situation of conflict of interest, he said.

McDonald questioned whether the government was serious about a resolution, while Lyte expressed the opinion that the Ministry’s representatives were attempting to stall the process. “It is discouraging that the ministry would put forward names that the smallest child would reject as unsuitable. It seems to be an attempt to stall the process or frustrate us. It really seemed as if the representatives were trying to play games,” he declared.

This belief has been bolstered by the letter which was sent to MoSP by the MoE. According to McDonald, though the meeting ended after working hours on September 14, the letter carried the same date. “It is clear just from this letter that is was their intention to go this route but we will hold the line” McDonald stressed.

 

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