In belated action, the Government this week finally went to the Industrial Court to stop Public Services Association president Watson Duke from further paralysing the nation through work stoppages premised on “sick buildings”.
The injunction granted by the court has brought limited relief, but hundreds of people have already been inconvenienced and suffered financial losses. Moreover, initial reports suggest that, while the public servants may have returned to their offices, they have not returned to work, with the processing of passports still holding up hundreds of citizens.
It remains to be seen whether Mr Duke will obey the court’s injunction. Section 65 of the Industrial Relations Act states: “Where industrial action is threatened or taken, whether in conformity with this act or otherwise, and the minister considers that the national interest is threatened or affected thereby, he may make an application to the court ex parte for an injunction restraining the parties from commencing or from continuing the action; and the court may make such order thereon as it considers fit having regard to the national interest.”
However, the PSA president argued in an interview on I95.5 FM that having public servants leave an environment which may threaten their health does not fall under the act which prevents strikes or other acts of protest for essential services, since no law can deprive a person of their right to health and safety.
This is an issue which the Government may decide to test in court but, in any case, there is a procedure established for taking action under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), where every government entity has a standing committee, which includes union representatives, to address safety issues. Mr Duke has not explained why he bypassed these committees.
The Government, in turn, has a responsibility to make the buildings OSHA-compliant so that public servants are comfortable and Mr Duke has no basis for sending them off on what is a form of paid leave. Questions have been raised as to why the Government did not move staff to suitable premises which are not being used but which the State is either renting or owns. Housing Minister Roodal Moonilal in the Lower House yesterday argued that these buildings had their own problems but, if this is true of all such premises, that in itself is another national scandal.
By their mishandling of this entire issue, both the PSA and the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration have aroused the ire of citizens. The public servants who walked off the job have reinforced the perception that they are lazy and uncaring, while the Government has appeared weak and incompetent.
And, as usual, ordinary citizens have suffered the most.