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Kangalee: The AG is out of his depth and betraying his ignorance of industrial relations

“[…] In Faris Al-Rawi’s upside-down world, a worker is sent home by an employer in an effort to coerce the worker into accepting the employer’s terms and conditions; and if the worker does not accept, she is deemed to have abandoned the job or been dismissed. 

“In actual practice, if workers are not rostered to take up duties, they would have been subject to an illegal lockout, which is an industrial relations offence…”

In the following column, Gerry Kangalee of the National Workers Union (NWU) suggests that Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi is ‘out of his depth’ in his attempt to vaccinate Trinidad and Tobago’s public sector:

Photo: Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi appeared, without a face mask, on Vibes with Voicey in March 2021.
Al-Rawi insisted that he did not flout Covid-19 regulations.

So the Attorney General has finally confirmed the growing suspicion that he is not the sharpest tool in the kit. Johnny Seukeran, as he is known in the South, addresses the nation and chats a whole heap of rubbish about industrial relations, which clearly he knows nothing about.

The Attorney General berates and bouffs the president of the Industrial Court for stating what the law says concerning unilateral variation of employment contracts by employers. Until the law is changed, all matters pertaining to unilateral variation of the employment contract by employers will be won by workers. 

Maybe this is one of the reasons the Dr Keith Rowley-led administration is in such a hurry to have workers fully vaccinated by 15 January. All hurry pot doh taste good!

Al-Rawi then takes it upon himself to mis-educate the population about fundamental concepts pertaining to industrial relations, which persons would expect he should be quite familiar with, being attorney general and all.

He and Prime Minister Rowley are always yapping about furlough. Furlough? What the hell is furlough? 

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (right) and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have a word in Parliament on 21 October 2021.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2021)

Originally it was an American military term for soldiers who have been granted leave for a specified time. The word seemed to have wended its way into the American industrial relations lexicon and, in that jurisdiction, it is defined as: ‘temporary cessations of work characterized by employees retaining their jobs but not getting paid. Employees keep their benefits during furloughs and anticipate that they will return to work within a certain period of time’. 

In our industrial relations environment this sounds suspiciousl, like lay-off. But more on that later on.

In the United Kingdom, furlough, which also was not part of their industrial relations language, became all the rage when employers tried to deal with Covid. They adopted the American definition, except that the furloughed workers were paid—in some instances, 80% of their wage, in some instances, 60%.

Let’s look now at the postulations of the esteemed Attorney General. On Monday 20 December, this self-styled descendant of the prophet said:

“If you are in the category of the listed category of persons… the law will contemplate the circumstances of being what we call absent without leave… being furloughed in effect, running down to not receiving your pay and other consequences…”

Photo: Nurse Keisha Gomes Prevatt (left) was first to receive the Covid-19 vaccine in February 2021.
All public servants, including nurses, are required to be vaccinated by mid-January 2022 if they are to be permitted to work.
(via TTT online)

Pay close attention. He talks about being absent without leave (another military term)… being furloughed in effect. 

So, Faris Al-Rawi equates being absent without leave as being furloughed. But isn’t being absent without leave at the initiative of the worker? 

A worker may be entitled to different kinds of leave, such as maternity, compassionate, vacation and sick leave, and may choose to absent himself from the job without the leave of his employer. But the employer, in this case, the government, is taking the initiative to send the worker home. 

Surely that is absent with leave—except when a worker is on approved leave, she would be receiving her wage. How the hell can that be the same thing? 

Not only is the employer (the government) absenting you without leave (sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?) or furloughing you—which in the AG’s fantasy world is the same thing—he goes on to say that the worker will not be paid and that, ominously, there will be other consequences.

Photo: An All Trinidad General Trade Workers Union demonstration.
(Courtesy ATGTWU)

What are those consequences? We will get to that shortly. 

So it is clear that, in the AG’s fevered brain, the furlough he is talking about is the American style, because the British furlough involves paying the workers. But, then, the American furlough involves the workers anticipating that they will return to work within a certain period of time.

On Tuesday 21 December, Al-Rawi stated ‘absence without leave, the furloughing… You can’t be furloughed indefinitely…gets down to the form of abandonment or dismissal’.

So Al-Rawi’s furlough has no set time period before the worker returns to work, does not involve payment to the workers, but it ‘gets down to the form of abandonment or dismissal’.

In Al-Rawi’s upside-down world, a worker is sent home by an employer in an effort to coerce the worker into accepting the employer’s terms and conditions; and if the worker does not accept, she is deemed to have abandoned the job or been dismissed.

Photo: Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi.
(Courtesy Office of the Attorney General)

In actual practice, if workers are not rostered to take up duties, they would have been subject to an illegal lockout, which is an industrial relations offence.

Doh get no horrors! My head is spinning too. 

In Al-Rawi’s parallel universe, job abandonment is the same as dismissal! Really? The AG should know that job abandonment is at the initiative of the worker. It is the worker’s intention to not return to work and when she does not notify the employer of an intention to quit. 

Dismissal is at the initiative of the employer and it has to conform to the principles and practices of good industrial relations, otherwise it may be deemed to be harsh, oppressive and unjust.

As was stated before, there is no such thing as furlough in our industrial relations environment. What we do have is lay-off, which lasts for a definite period of time. 

Photo: Leaders of the then All Trinidad General Trade Workers Union protest.

In the past, the court ruled that a reasonable lay-off period was three months. A worker then has to return to work. But the government’s intention to refuse to roster non-vaccinated workers can be deemed to be constructive dismissal.

Al-Rawi’s shit show seems to have emanated from a hasty, not well thought out knee-jerk reaction to the the Government’s running out of ideas for dealing with vaccine hesitancy. The bill has not yet been brought to Parliament and it is clearly full of contradictions. 

The questions of whether it needs a three-fifths majority has to be sorted out as does whether there are going to have to be amendments to the Industrial Relations Act to accommodate their intention.

For instance, Section 10.3 of the Industrial Relations Act states ‘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.’

Photo: President of the Industrial Court, Deborah Thomas-Felix.

One industrial relations ‘expert’ opines that the government may intend to legislatively define the term ‘furlough’—all this has to happen by 15 January when all employees paid by the government have to be fully vaccinated.

Government, as it is accustomed doing, is stumbling its way through, bouffing everybody along the way, not having a clue as to the consequences of its actions. 

But, in the final analysis, they are gambling that, as messy as it might be, they will have their way… if we let them.

While the Attorney General may have exposed his lamentable ignorance of labour laws, while the Government may be incompetent, while the Prime Minister may believe his job is to bawl up at people, they are determined to go through with this hammer blow against the working class. 

They will succeed if we let them. You see, it all comes down to a question of power. Is the power of the people stronger than the people in power? 

As in all things, time will tell.

Editor’s Note: This column was published first on the National Workers Union (NWU) website.

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One comment

  1. Candid piece! Whose interest is the government seeking? Whose interest have they empirically and historically sought?

    “Is the power of the people stronger than the people in power?” Currently, no. I remain optimistic, however, that we as a society will begin to don our critical thinking hats if we haven’t already begun to do so.