Last week, Public Services Association (PSA) president Watson Duke was praising his members for returning to work out of their sense of duty. This week, Mr Duke instructed those same public servants to defy an injunction from the Industrial Court which ordered employees of the Immigration Department to return to work. So much, then, for any sense of duty or sympathy for citizens who now cannot go on their planned vacations, studies, or business.
Mr Duke has claimed to be on solid legal ground since no law can override the right to health and safety. Be that as it may, the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) lays out a specific procedure when employees have such concerns—procedures which Mr Duke appears not to have followed and which the strangely supine Labour Minister Errol McLeod appears not to have insisted on.
Thus, employees cannot simply claim fear for their health and safety and take a paid leave of absence. Section 18 (1) of the act states that an inspector must investigate the employees’ complaints within 24 hours and make a decision. If this has happened, such decisions or reports have not been made public; and, if it has not happened, the 17-member OSHA Authority must say why. If the inspectors have failed to perform their duty as mandated by the act, then they too are culpable in this state of affairs and should be disciplined accordingly.
Moreover, Section 18 (2) says that, even if the employee does not return to the place of work, the employer can “assign the employee reasonable alternative work during his normal hours” or “give other directions to the worker”. Yet the Government has failed to use this clause to ensure that business of processing passports takes place on other OSHA-compliant premises while the “sick buildings” are being fixed.
This may be mere incompetence, but it could also be politicking between Mr Duke and the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration. After all, Mr Duke gains no obvious advantage for himself or public servants by this detestable strategy. The Immigration Department employees are presumably aware that they could face legal sanctions by following the PSA president’s lead to take industrial action—penalties which Mr Duke himself is not subject to. Apart from disobeying a directive from a court, these employees have ensured that, if the Government decides to take harsh action and dismiss them, the majority of citizens will show them little sympathy.
Mr Duke has demonstrated his power by paralysing key parts of the State, but that may have been his only goal. The Government now needs to out-manoeuvre the PSA, even before they address the safety issues that are the ostensible reason for this industrial action.