President of the Industrial Court Deborah Thomas-Felix is stressing the need for employers to implement safety measures to protect workers from heat-related illnesses and other climate-related dangers.
Presenting the feature address at the special sitting of the court for the opening of the 2023-2024 Industrial Court law term Thomas-Felix noted the impact of climate change on industrial relations.
She said climate change can affect productivity as she pointed to the heat being experienced in TT.
“In TT, we know only too well the intense heat experienced when we are outdoors for work. Also, there are workers who experience the intense heat and discomfort when working indoors because they work in buildings which are not properly ventilated.”
Thomas-Felix added, “Exposure to extreme heat can result in occupational illness, injuries and even death.”
She pleaded the case for workers who operate in hot environments and said that according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) excessive heat during work creates occupational health risks, restricts physical functions and diminishes work capacity and productivity.
“Workers who are more at risk to heat stress…include fire-fighters, bakery workers, farmers, construction workers, miners, boiler room workers, factory workers, among others. The increasing extreme weather events directly place workers who are engaged on construction sites, agriculture and in some cases the essential services within direct risk.”
She said, “Social partners should therefore encourage the adoption of sound health and safety mechanisms and policies in the workplace. Adequate safety measures are paramount in protecting workers from heat-related illnesses, air quality hazards and other climate-related dangers.”
Thomas-Felix advocated for the reintroduction of work-from-home policies to address heat-related illnesses and the larger issue of climate change.
“Consideration should be given to the use of remote work and new modalities of work. Remote work allows workers to stay safe during disasters such as natural disasters or pandemics and minimises disruptions to business operations. It can also lead to increased productivity during the time of an environmental or health adversity.”
She also called on trade unions and employers to hold training seminars about climate change-related issues which may impact employees.
“I also think it will be very useful for employers and unions to incorporate clauses in collective agreements for the annual training of workers especially those who are at greater risk so that they can understand the danger of heat stress and other environmental concerns which affect their health and safety and also learn of preventative measures.”
Thomas Felix also reiterated the importance of social dialogue noting that has been a common theme in her previous presentations.
“When there is the practice of good industrial relations and the business is a success, the people who are involved in that business benefit. The owners realise a profit and the workers receive their remuneration and benefits, thereby realising a measure of economic security. It is important when there is collective bargaining that there should be mutual respect in the room even if there is no agreement.
She continued, “If there is no social dialogue and the business enterprise collapses, then you may end up losing the bath water, the basin and even the baby. I therefore implore you to never lose focus on what is your ultimate common goal which is for the business owner to realise profits and for workers to receive their just remunerations and benefits for decent work.”
Thomas Felix said last year saw a reduction of cases before the court.
In the Industrial Court 793 new cases were filed in the 2022-2023 term, 309 cases less than the 2021-2022 law term.
Trade disputes remained the largest number of matters filed with a total of 654 followed by 38 retrenchment and severance benefits disputes; 31 occupational safety and health disputes and 25 industrial relations offences.
The court meanwhile disposed of 909 matters, 62 more than the 847 matters disposed of for the same period in 2021-2022.
Of the 909 matters, 289 cases were withdrawn, 320 matters were settled through the conciliation and bilateral process, 44 matters were dismissed and judgements were issued in 253 cases.
Thomas-Felix also spoke on the lack of sufficient space for staff at the court, which she labelled a “pressing concern which at times stymies the operations of the court.”
“This building was commissioned in 1997. Over the years there has been a significant increase in the number of staff, judges and users of the court. I cannot over-emphasise how important it is for the physical facility at the court to be comfortable for the staff and the users and I continue to look forward for an amicable resolution of this problem by the relevant authorities.”
Her comments and accompanying glance at the officials seated in the front row, which included Attorney General Reginald Armour and Chief Justice Ivor Archie, elicited a chuckle from the room.
She also said the leaking roof at the Port of Spain building required urgent repair to prevent further damage to the building and the court’s records.
Thomas-Felix said she intends to address the backlog of cases from Tobago that accrued during the pandemic.
“During the period of the covid pandemic, it was not possible for citizens who live in Tobago to attend court in Port of Spain, as a result, we have a number of cases to be determined from Tobago. It is my intention to make arrangements after discussions with the Chief Justice to hold a session in Tobago next year to determine some of these disputes.”