The Industrial Court of Trinidad and Tobago is a superior court of record, which gives it a status equivalent to that of the High Court of Justice. It is also a specialized court with its own peculiar jurisdiction and is responsible for the dispensation of social justice. The principal role of the court is to settle unresolved disputes and other matters which arise between employer and trade union.
The mission statement of the court clearly outlines its role: “We are an effective Court upholding the principles and practices of good Industrial Relations as pillars of Industrial Peace, Economic and Social Development.”
However, on 12 May 2016 the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday published an article by Verne Burnett titled: “Business sector wants sweeping changes to Industrial Court”. Burnett reported CEO of the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers’ Association (TTMA), Dr Ramesh Ramdeen as saying the decisions of the Industrial Court “lack[ed] equity”.
The business sector portrayed the Industrial Court as an “obstacle to their ability to run their businesses profitably and maintain the necessary discipline” and called for sweeping changes to the structure of the Industrial Court.
They further claimed that “judgements coming out of the Court favoured the worker at the expense of the employer and the survival of the business as a going and profitable enterprise.”
But is the claim by the business sector justified? Let’s look at the facts.
The structure of the Industrial Court is designed to promote flexibility and open dialogue rather than protect entrenched interests. Additionally, in accordance with Section 10.3 a, b of the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) the Court has a moral foundation from which to operate:
Section 10 (3) Notwithstanding anything in this Act or in any other rule of law to the contrary, the Court in the exercise of its powers shall-
(a) make such order or award in relation to a dispute before it as it considers fair and just, having regard to the interests of the persons immediately concerned and the community as a whole;
(b) act in accordance with equity, good conscience and the substantial merits of the case before it, having regard to the principles and practices of good industrial relations.
Further, a look at judgements of the Court would indicate that they are quality judgements which displays fairness and justice. The legislation which gave life to the Industrial Court can be described as one of the greatest pieces of legislation for the protection of the ordinary worker despite its limitations and challenges.
The employers are complaining now, but are those who are making these statements actually involved in the industrial relations process, especially at the level of the Industrial Court. Are they familiar with the contents of the judgements they are now criticizing?
Advocates at the Court will reveal that in most cases employers do not co-operate with the processes at the Industrial Court and they treat attempts to administrate matters with scant courtesy. Would they dare to do this at the High Court, where judgements could be given on the basis of your refusal to participate in proceedings?
The Industrial Court is the manager of the industrial relations process and environment and as such they should be given all the tools, resources and support in the provision of fairness, equity and justice, whenever oppression stifles the use of flexibility. These are the same employers who often talk about productivity whilst workers are not being treated fairly and justly at the work place.
The Court’s role is to treat with the imbalance of power between capital and labour and its judgements clearly display its transparency in the administering of justice, with judgments clearly defined and taking into account all the facts on a matter presented before it.
The members of the business sector should therefore look at themselves before making unfair and unjustified criticism of the Industrial Court. The conduct of industrial relations practices at the work place is far from being fair and just. In fact, in almost every matter that goes before the Industrial Court the conduct of the employer is described as being harsh and oppressive.
So instead of making veiled attacks on the Industrial Court, the business sector should focus on its role as a social partner and commit itself to the building of meaningful labour/ management relationships as this has a direct impact on profitability, productivity, job security and improvement in the quality of life of working class citizens.
Additionally, instead of blaming the Court, it is time the business sector meaningfully engage the trade union movement and begin the conversation to make the playing field level in the best interest of all parties.
Failure, to so do will result in the continuation of the class struggle between those who possess but do not produce (capitalist class) and those who produce but do not possess (working class).
A word to the wise is sufficient.