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Saturday 20 April 2019
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Judge tells unions: Lobby to plug severance loophole

AN Industrial Court judge urged trade unionists to lobby to change the labour law that had allowed global steel giant ArcelorMittal to suddenly pack up shop in TT and leave hundreds of workers without any severance compensation payment.

The upbraid came at a one-day labour conference on Wednesday at Cipriani Labour College, Valsayn, from judge Gregory Rousseau, in his address on good industrial relations practices associated with retrenchment.

He related the case of the collapsed firm, Commercial Finance, where redundant workers were initially awarded compensation by the Industrial Court and then the Appeal Court, only to be overruled by the Privy Council. The highest court said a local labour law (Act 32 of 1985) said “redundancy” merely means “surplus to requirements”.

He said if a company ceases to exist, the severed employee is not “surplus to requirements”.

“The Privy Council said that when a company goes into receivership, no severance is due.

“To this day, the trade union movement is doing nothing about this to make it a front-burner issue.”

Rousseau said when ArcelorMittal closed, a man drank poison, another lost his wife, yet nothing was done to lobby against that law. “How are we going to mobilise?” he urged, saying only a simple amendment to the law was needed.

“You are living in an age when there is a choice. There is a struggle going on, between a warning letter being enough for a dismissal or the right to be heard under the rules of natural justice.”

Recalling the late unionist Joe Young winning employees the right to be heard before dismissal by saying God once gave Cain a chance to explain himself, Rousseau urged those present to participate in helping to develop jurisprudence in the local Industrial Court.

At length he explained how companies may try to use restructuring as an excuse to retrench workers, even in cases where the company is still making vulgar profits. He said the law entitles you to know why your company is being re-structured and why you are being severed.

Recalling the late Dr Eric Williams once requesting union leaders to meet him to resolve a 1969 bus strike, Rousseau said, “Today the trade union movement is begging to meet prime ministers. When the trade union movement was where it was, they were begging to meet us.

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