The thorny question of what constitutes justifiable absenteeism has remained on the front burner of industrial-relations problems, without lessening as the pandemic continues.
It's mainly complicated by two factors: first, the current (and shifting) guidelines being issued as to mandatory days in isolation or quarantine after testing for covid; and second, the unfortunate tendency of some people to slyly claim exposure repeatedly in order to justify an unofficial extension of their vacation.
The vexed question of justification for mandatory vaccinations aside, the day-to-day problems of productivity that have bedevilled commerce and productivity in both the public and private sectors for years remain urgent, particularly in a situation when the Minister of Finance and/or leading economists both local and international have repeatedly warned the nation of tight budgetary measures.
Neither problem is unique to Trinidad and Tobago. The whole Caribbean, which is often divided on other matters, shares a brotherly connection on this one.
Over several decades, industrial-relations practitioners have pondered why there cannot be labour legislation that is consistent throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean.
Commercial organisations are actively encouraged to operate throughout the area and all those who can actually do, or try to, share the problems of shipping, air transport and foreign exchange as well as competition with external sources.
As inter-island commerce grows, any one company may have branches in several different territories. As a necessary method of developing staff expertise, employees move from one territory to another, giving rise to issues such as which country’s labour standards apply in disciplinary matters: the country of original employment, or the country in which the employee is currently working, and in which the disciplinary issue first arose?
The wording in contracts of employment themselves cannot cover every possible exigency that will arise. Human behaviour is a moveable feast and is endlessly inventive when it comes to dealing with sudden opportunities for individual advantage.
Individual trade unions, on the other hand, for some reason have not developed to cover the region, so have to deal with the laws only in the one country in which they are located, so an employee covered by membership of a union in one Caribbean country will not have coverage when they move to a branch of the same company, but in a different country.
This, of course, is contrary to the principle of labour unity that unions proclaim, diminishes their potential effectiveness, and may act as a disadvantage to individual employees in a regional environment, but is unlikely to change in my lifetime.
Uniform Caribbean labour standards would benefit all. Several countries such as Montserrat and Bahamas, St Lucia and Anguilla have clear and logical labour codes, for example.
Others, TT among them, do not, and practitioners depend on situational variances and cases argued in industrial courts (TT, Antigua and Barbuda for example) or industrial tribunals (Jamaica, Bahamas, Dominica) for guidance.
Then there is Barbados, which has its own system, which depends on the Ministry of Labour’s services for guidance, but where collective agreements do not have the force of law as they do in TT, once they are registered in the Industrial Court.
Even such obviously region-wide issues as sexual harassment are only covered by specific legislation in the Bahamas and Belize, whereas in other countries it is generally considered to be covered by other legislation, which can move its consequential coverage from a judicial body specifically set up to deal with labour issues to a civil or criminal court which, in the words of former president of TT’s Industrial Court Sir Isaac Hyatali, are courts of law, where industrial courts and tribunals are courts of human relations, under which sexual behaviour logically falls.
While covid quarantine regulations also vary from island to island unnecessarily, since the virus affects human bodies from country to country in the same vicious manner, it is unclear why, even under the same WHO guidance, Caribbean countries are not consistent in their quarantine regulations.
As the opposition to mandatory vaccinations has become a worldwide politically divisive issue, there are recommendations, also worldwide – as an alternative to terminating the employment of people who may have valuable and needed skills and long and meritorious service – to require that those who refuse to be vaccinated the option of having to present a negative test every two weeks in order to continue working.
Since individual test kits are now available relatively cheaply, one wonders why every company which, in accordance with safety and health regulations, has a Red Cross or the equivalently trained first-aid officer, cannot add a few hours' training to the first-aid person on how to administer the tests – which seems to be fairly simple to do, thousands having been already trained to do so – and provide the testing in-company free for those who need it? Since even home tests are now available, it should be simple enough to do so.
Most workers simply cannot afford to shell out $800-$1,200 every two weeks for a test which might take three days to deliver. The new ones can provide results in a couple of hours.
It would avoid a lot of grievance handling, save thousands of jobs, and enable joint company-trade union collaboration on one of the most urgent issues facing the world today.