Decoding good IR practices

Industrial Court on St Vincent Street, Port of Spain. FILE PHOTO -
Industrial Court on St Vincent Street, Port of Spain. FILE PHOTO -


Epistemology and metaphysics were, my father told me, in tones of sheer exasperation, one of the most useless disciplines I could have chosen to study at university.

It would never get me a job, he said. But obsessively, I chose it anyway. I had some kind of addiction to philosophy which I have never been cured of.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge – how to distinguish true knowledge from opinion, which is actually essential in most professions these days (sorry, Dad). A truth, sadly, which we can only find through the use of words, words and their meanings.

Metaphysics is usually tied to it. It means the fundamental nature of reality, of what is true. And it is probably why I went on into industrial relations (IR), a practical implementation branch of human rights.

After a lifetime of asking these questions and still searching for answers, I am more and more dismayed at the current tendency of those in the fields of commerce – which include lawyers, politicians, managers, teachers and those in the medical field – to use their status and delegated authority to calmly insist that “words mean what I say they mean, so do what I say: My way or the highway.”

But words themselves are a kind of code. We use words as symbols to represent the world and our perception of it.

Which is often what leads to disciplinary issues that end up in the Industrial Court, and to the difference between legislated law and common-law principles that are the basis for what is regarded as good IR practice. People educated in law get confused, and sometimes angry and belligerent at industrial-tribunal awards that are not consistent with what they learned in law school. Human resource management is not bound only by legislation, however.

Attorneys at law may need to ponder Section 9 of the Industrial Relations Act, which reads: “In the hearing and determination of any matter before it, the Court may act without regard to technicalities and legal form and shall not be bound to follow the rules of evidence stipulated in the Evidence Act, but the court may inform itself on any matter in such manner as it thinks just and may take into account opinion evidence and such facts as it considers relevant and material."

Let me give you an example. My favourite case in my early days in IR involved Caroni Ltd. Employees who drove company vehicles as part of their jobs were allowed to take their vehicles home in the evening, as most of them lived on the vast Caroni estate anyway. However, there were abuses, and employees’ children were taking the vehicles out at night for joy rides and damaging them. It became too expensive, so the company issued a policy that all company vehicles must be returned to a parking space put aside on the compound at the end of the working day.

One elderly employee known as Ram, who drove a battered old delivery van, which to him gave him status in the company, simply did not believe that the policy could apply to him. The old van was tied to his identity. So at night, he drove it home as usual. He lived alone. His children were all grown up and had left home years ago. He looked after the van as though it was his child, washing and polishing it every night.

The vehicle manager told him repeatedly that he had to return it to the parking lot every night, and he ignored him. He honestly did not believe the policy referred to him.

So one day when he was parked outside the company clinic the manager walked casually up to him and asked for the keys for a minute. Unsuspecting, he handed them over, whereupon the manager jumped into the van, drove it into the parking lot and locked it.

Ram, seeing him drive away, ran after him, cutlass in hand, screaming: “I going to kill you, I going to kill you!”

Caroni Ltd did not approve of workers trying to kill managers, and he was fired.

When the dismissal case went before the company tribunal, the law said that he was guilty of a crime, which he was, but the IR decision was guided by a wise and experienced IR manager, by whom I was guided in many subsequent cases.

He took into account the metaphysical reality of Ram’s life, based on his 40 years of unblemished and loyal service to Tate and Lyle and then Caroni. He would lose his pension if he were fired for cause, one year before retirement age. So Ram was put on suspension for a year and at the end, he got his full pension.

As Baroness Sears from the London School of Economics said: "There must be a distinction where there is a difference."

While law ages, IR changes.

Another factor to take into consideration is that law can take up to more than 50 years to be amended or be deleted and a new one is drafted and goes through Parliament to be legislated. Back a mere 40 years ago, a young man working for Glendinnings in Port of Spain was dismissed for breaking a law called "breach of promise," when he got a young fellow employee pregnant and refused to marry her.

The environment, society and the law have since changed, and although disciplinary rules now do include dismissal for sexual harassment and sexual abuse of female employees, there is no longer such a law.

Nor was there one at that time. Company rules and laws of the land do not regard a breach of promise to marry as a crime, unless it is in a written and notarised prenuptial contract. Which is outside the remit of the application of metaphysics and epistemology, to principles of good industrial relations.


"Decoding good IR practices"

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