Monday, 23 July 2012 02:30
By Everton Barnes
Antigua St. John’s - The operations of the Labour Department, the government agency that mediates labour disputes between employees and employers, came under scrutiny on a weekend talk show, and was weighed in the balance and found wanting.
Three labour specialists were guests on Sunday’s Big Issues programme on Observer Radio and they gave the department a failing grade for its handling of labour matters in the country.
Former trade unionist, Anderson Carty, who handles labour relations matters on behalf of a number of companies, said while the labour Department was established by the Labour Code as an agency to help resolve disputes, its functioning in recent times has been ‘poor’.
“Some of the problems at the department have been around for a long time, since my days as a trade unionist, but not only are these challenges still there, but in many cases they have gotten worse,” Carty observed.
He noted that while the current Labour Minister, Dr Errol Cort has been making some efforts to deal with the challenges, he believes that the department is in need of even greater attention.
Carty pointed to staffing issues at the department that may be at the heart of the problem. He questioned the recruitment process for new officers and he pointed to inexperience as another serious matter at the department.
“If officers are making a determination based on law, (the experience) does not come across. If both parties believe that they are right, there is no clear direction from the officer (one way or another) and this is due to lack of experience,” he noted.
According to Carty, the current state of affairs has not always been so, as experienced personnel were available at the department in the past.
“Unfortunately, some of these officers have since moved on to greener pastures or have migrated. In effect, there has been a serious brain-drain at the Labour Department and this has not been replaced,” the industrial specialist stated.
He also spoke to the issue of salaries and benefits for officers at the department, which he described as unattractive.
“This is a de-motivating factor. When people can’t pay their bills from their salaries, it’s difficult to motive them,” he declared.
Carty was also clear when he called for leadership at the department. He said clearly there was a need to better marshall the resources at the department to include proper scheduling and better time management.
Labour Consultant, David Jonas said his appointment last year, along with Henderson Bass and Sir Keithlyn Smith, to help resolve much of the backlog of cases, has been helpful. He disclosed that since his appointment, he has resolved 20 cases. However, he noted that figure could have been doubled had it not been for the continued absence of union officials and employers from scheduled meetings.
He said one trade union missed four consecutive meetings without notifying the department of the unavailability of the officer concerned in a timely manner. Jonas also hinted at other departmental issues hampering the operations of the department.
Head of the Antigua and Barbuda Free Trade Union, Stafford Joseph, added his voice for the need for strengthening the staff at the department. He said quite often he has had better co-operation from junior staff than senior staff at the department.
Some of the problems raised at the department include the inordinate delays in hearing cases, with those delays running into multiple years.