Over the last weekend several public statements were made purporting to be from government medical officers relating to the still unresolved question of who pays for “quarantine leave.”
The Industrial Relations Act did not contemplate a covid19 pandemic when it was drafted back in 1972. Nobody did. There are no laws specifically drafted telling those involved in drafting employment contracts what to do in the event one strikes. There are laws that refer to minimum wages and conditions of work. Minimum periods of paid vacation annually, minimum periods of paid sick leave, payment during public holidays, maximum hours of work, payment during overtime, severance payments during periods of retrenchment and so on. But there are no specific laws defining “must pay” during covid19 quarantine periods.
The nearest guideline comes under section 42 subsection 5 of the Industrial Relations Act, which says: “subject to subsection 3, nothing in this section shall be construed so as to compel any employer in the absence of agreement to the contrary to pay or compensate any worker for any time not spent in the duties of his employment,” and section 62 subsection 2 uses the same words by saying: "nothing in subsection 1 shall be construed as imposing on an employer any obligation to pay for any services of a worker that are withheld as a result of strike action done in conformity with this part.”
This wording refers to the basic policy of contract law that relates to payment for services rendered, and what is known as “offer and acceptance.” In other words, if an employer – and in this country the primary employer referred to is the government – has made an “agreement” to pay employees for not performing duties of their employment, the workers will still be paid.
This is perfectly reasonable if the employee has tested positive for covid19, and the employer does not want the disease to spread to other employees in the organisation. And there are regulations that impose a duty on all citizens to self-isolate if you have contracted covid19.
But none says your employer has to pay you during your absence unless they already agreed to do so through allocating the absence to agreed paid sick or vacation leave.
But the Ministry of Health has made it clear that anyone who has direct contact with someone who has tested positive must also go into quarantine, at least for seven days, until they test negative – which can be the entire department the “positive” person works with. This has, in some cases in the public service, halted services the department is responsible for performing.
To make it worse, small private-sector businesses that statistically employ the majority of employed wage-earners in the nation, have to grant paid quarantine leave not only to those who have tested positive, but those who have been in direct contact with them. So they close down and everyone loses employment, causing economic disaster in the country.
What has made it more complex have been the claims of those who have not tested positive but who claim paid leave every month because they have a family member or a neighbour who they suspect has the virus, or virus-like symptoms, but have not been able to afford private testing or been accepted for public testing.
It is not only the Prime Minister who has suspected some degree of deception there. The Industrial Relations Act did foresee the possibility of false claims. Section 77 (1) states that: "A worker who by deception absents himself from employment is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $1,000 or to imprisonment for six months,” That meant absent but claiming the right to be paid, although not being either sick or working for the organisation at home. And yes, even in 1972 there were people who worked from home.
The larger employers were able, for a couple of months, to rotate staff, to make provisions for employees with small children who had to stay home as schools are closed, lest they be charged with child abandonment, and to assign work from home wherever possible.
But even they, with the best will in the world, cannot, as the months stretch into years, continue to pay workers who for whatever reason cannot provide services for which they were originally employed.
Entrepreneurs, one after the other, are closing down, customer-service employees sent home. Those professionals who prudently invested their savings are now living off them, watching them diminish. Those retirees who put all their savings into real estate (knowing that money loses value at seven per cent per annum) are no longer able to rent. Those who set themselves up in their own service businesses are no longer able to attract former clients who, themselves laid off, are now doing the domestic and home maintenance jobs once contracted out.
Like dominoes, one after the other we fall. Foreign exchange is all black-market now, and the cost of processes, like transport, energy, internet support services, etc, as a result escalate, because we live in an interconnected world and do not make our own computer parts. Or grow enough food to sustain our population.
The class and income-earning divisions in TT are becoming dangerously critical. Even the most modest observers of international relations are seeing the playing out, worldwide, of the old formula: economic unrest leading to social unrest followed by industrial unrest followed by civic unrest – then to violence and changes in political power by violence.
And yet we must be grateful because, as a country, we are better off than most of the rest of the world.
But we were before the events of 1990, as well.