THE SATURDAY SUN of March 12, 2016 informed readers that the Minister of Labour, Senator Dr Esther Byer Suckoo, had ruled in favour of the Grantley Adams International Airport Inc. (GAIA Inc.) in its dispute with the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), over the 3.5 per cent wage increase for workers dated back to 2010.
As an industrial relations practitioner, that news came as a complete shock since that ruling has overturned everything that I was taught and practised over the years. At this stage, without going into the merits of the case for either side, I would like to review the comedy of errors that culminated with the Minister acting as a conciliator and giving a ruling.
The disputing parties met, negotiations broke down; and the employer, in an attempt to forestall threatened industrial action, referred the matter to the Chief Labour Officer. In industrial relations, conciliation is a process where the parties to a dispute utilise the services of a neutral third party to assist them in coming to an amicable settlement. That basic definition by itself should have ruled out the minister as a conciliator.
The statement by GAIA Inc. published in the SUNDAY SUN of February 14, 2016 revealed that the matter of an increase of wages and salaries for GAIA Inc’s workers was referred to Cabinet for final approval, and that they instructed the company in December 2010 that there should be no increase in wages and salaries. Dr Byer-Suckoo was then and continues to be a member of the Cabinet.
Even if she had given the most profound ruling, there would always be those among us would be suspicious of her actions. The oft-quoted maxim by Lord Chief Justice Hewart could not be more apt in these circumstances: “Justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”.
The Minister cannot be seen as an independent third party. First, she is bound by the constitutional convention of collective responsibility to publicly support all decisions made in Cabinet. Additionally, she is an unelected parliamentarian who serves in the Senate at the pleasure of the Prime Minister and she would not be expected to overrule the alleged agreement made when the PM chaired a meeting with the disputing parties on December 28, 2010.
I contend that there is no role for the Minister of Labour or the Prime Minister to be a conciliator in labour disputes. That practice crept into our local industrial relations when a union found itself out on a limb and needed someone to help it climb down. In order to save face, the union could and did say that it changed its position out of respect for the Prime Minister. That worked so well that it has continually been used to thwart the demands and legitimate expectations of workers.
That aside, in this case, how did the Minister start out as a conciliator and end up giving a ruling as though she was an arbitrator? A conciliator does not make a ruling. A person in that capacity is only required to assist the parties in reaching an amicable settlement. (If we are to judge by the reaction of the president of the NUPW, the settlement was anything but amicable). On the other hand, an arbitrator listens to the evidence and comes to a conclusion in much the same way as a judge.
If the parties were interested in binding arbitration, there is a piece of little known legislation, the Trade Disputes (Arbitration and Enquiry) Act, that would not involve the Minister. That act at section 3 requires either of the parties to a dispute to report the matter to the Governor General, who would appoint an arbitrator to decide the matter, if the other side agrees.
The other troubling aspect of this sorry spectacle is that the union’s delegation seems to have been led by the president, who is not required to know anything about industrial relations. The rules of that union assign a very limited role to its president. According to Rule 11, the president shall ordinarily preside at meetings, sign cheques and other negotiable instruments in conjunction with the treasurer and as part of the Executive Committee superintend the general affairs of the union in conjunction with the general secretary.
It seems in this dispute that everyone is doing his/her own thing and only the workers suffer. Students of industrial relations must carefully review the actions taken in this dispute, and when they have done so; they would know how not to prosecute a grievance on behalf of workers.