Change old labour laws, transform workers lives


[email protected]

This Labour Day, the bedraggled workers trudging behind sodden signs have little cause to sing or celebrate.

Abel Resende

The numbers tell the human toll of their daily existence. We rank dead last in the world for co-operation in labour-employer relations: 140 out of 140 countries.

Abel Resende Borges

Our hiring and firing practices put us at 106th place, and the flexibility of our wage determination at a rosy 101st place, according to the 2018 World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report

Too many workers are trapped in dead-end jobs and can’t see any opportunities. Our freedom and our ability to demand effective representation is constrained by what everyone from labour leaders to the chambers of commerce says are antiquated and unjust laws

Many of us join unions to put ourselves in a better negotiating position – for better pay, for example. But we cannot choose by whom we are represented

It is now illegal for any unionised employer to negotiate with a union or person that the State has not recognised as the employer’s majority union. If you want to switch your union, you cannot. If you want to represent yourself, you cannot

Many unions have committed leaders. But the reality is that more than a few are ineffective and unaccountable to their members. If we don’t feel effectively represented by our union, we should be able to negotiate on our own behalf; switch to or form another union that we think can better represent us

That is our very right to freedom of association, enshrined since 1948 by the Convention of the International Labour Organisation

We should demand this right from the government. We deserve the best representation possible. Too many of us are still denied this. Not by any one person, but by dusty old laws

Even where a union has practically ceased to operate, it still holds the status of the “recognised majority union.” Many workers are forcibly bound to these zombie unions by existing legislation. They are often bound to old, irrelevant agreements

This is good for no one: not workers, not labour leaders and not employers, all of whom are trapped in a state of uncertainty

That uncertainty is fatal to growth. How do you know if you can afford a new house if you don’t know what your wages will be?

This uncertainty doesn’t just affect workers. How can your employer know whether to invest in new equipment or develop a new product, if they don’t know what their wage costs will be? The joint chambers and their lead representative – industry reformer Teresa White of ANSA – all agree

These principles of freedom and equity must extend to the Industrial Court. For years, members like its president Deborah Thomas-Felix have fought admirably in the cause of social justice. But their hands are tied to redress the many injustices faced by individuals

That is because a non-unionised individual has no recourse to justice before the Industrial Court. Their only hope is the High Court- out of reach for most of us

We should empower and expand the authority of the Industrial Court to preside over cases brought by individuals – not just unions

Our society will only be truly equitable when our workers and the most vulnerable have access to the broadest possible justice. That includes the right of all parties to fully appeal Industrial Court judgements, which outdated laws still prevent

Little wonder the 2018 Doing Business Index ranks TT in 174th place out of 190 countries in contract enforcement – defined as the time and cost to resolve a commercial dispute, as well as the quality of judicial processes

The current law does not even permit the court to order legal costs in the case of withdrawn claims (other than in “exceptional cases”)

That means that any party can weaponise the law with impunity. Just sue someone in the Industrial Court, and later withdraw it. You will cost them hefty legal fees and lost time. And they have no redress

In the almost ten years between 2006 and 2015, one in five cases was withdrawn. And between 2010 and 2015, the number of cases introduced only to be withdrawn rose by 65 per cent. We must empower the court to award costs and prevent this exploitation of the justice system

As last week’s AmCham tech conference made abundantly clear, an unprecedented wave of automation and artificial intelligence is reshaping the world of work. It is creating tremendous growth. By restoring freedom and justice to workers, we can ensure that this growth casts a wide net and is equitable to boot

Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh