25/06/2018 – Jamaica Gleaner. / The recent tragic death of Mr Odean Wood arising from an explosion at the Rockfort plant, operated by the Jamaica Public Service Company Limited (JPS), is yet another reason for us to focus on this pernicious practice of contract work, which has wiggled its way into our industrial relations landscape.
Odean Wood, 34, suffered third degree burns and injury to 95 per cent of his body after the explosion in April 2018 and died. Unfortunately, he was classified as a ‘contract worker’ and therefore not entitled to benefits that would have normally flowed, were he employed as a non-contract worker.
Who takes liability for the death of this father, brother, son, who died tragically while seeking to earn an honest living? Who is the real employer?
Too many Jamaican workers in the BPO sector, the tourism sector and our security guards have been caught up and being exploited in this unfair system of contract work, and the practise is expanding.
The Labour Relations Code, approved by this Parliament in 1976, clearly states in Clause 2.
“Recognition is also given to that work is a social right and obligation, it is not a commodity; it is to be respected and dignity must be accorded to those who perform it, ensuring continuity of employment, security of earnings and job satisfaction”.
Mr Speaker, when our workers are performing permanent work, but are treated as contract workers, they are denied basic rights such as vacation leave, maternity leave and even sick leave. That is exploitation.
In addition, they are denied pension possibility and the State, in some cases, loses out on statutory deductions such as NIS, NHT, and education tax.
The truth is, Mr Speaker, there are employees who are working for 20 to 30 years, who have been working as so-called contract workers, without the enjoyment of any retirement benefit. This level of exploitation cannot and must not be allowed to continue unchecked in this country.
Mr Speaker, as opposition spokesperson on labour, I call on the Government to join with the Opposition in promulgating legislation as a matter of urgency to protect the vulnerable workers of Jamaica from this oppressive, exploitative and unfair system of employment relations.
I give the assurance to our workers, as the leader of the Opposition has said on several occasions, that a future People’s National Party government will do as other countries have done in passing legislation to protect the workers and to end the exploitative practice disguised under this so-called contract employment system.
It is wrong, it is exploitative, and it is union busting. The rights of the Jamaican workers must be protected.
Mr Speaker, within this group of so-called contract workers is a specific group called ‘security guards’. There are approximately 27,000 to 30,000 registered guards in Jamaica.
This group of workers, who we see every day performing their duties in thousands of locations, at all hours of the day and night, receive no maternity leave, no pension, no time-off, no vacation leave; and, in fact, if they take an hour out of a day or take a day to attend to urgent family matters, they lose the day’s pay.
I want to say two things on behalf of the Opposition.
1) We have noticed that there’s some movement among security guards to be organised into a lobby grouping. If they are successful in forging this national association, we would welcome it as a legitimate entity, representing the interest of security guards. They have our blessing in this endeavour.
2) The Opposition will be going to court to seek a declaratory judgment, to determine whether security guards are contractors or workers. This group of workers cannot continue to suffer any longer, and the PNP pledges to resolve this issue once and for all.
Mr Speaker, I now move to the issue of the minimum wage. As of now, the country’s minimum wage stands at $6,200 per 40-hour work week.
I know that the National Minimum Wage Advisory Commission has been meeting to give the minister its recommendation.
In the past, the People’s National Party’s administration … ensured that there was an increase to the minimum wage workers – household workers, ordinary workers, who work every day, hundreds of thousands of them.
We gave them the increase every January 1 – that’s the only way they can be protected by the State.
This was an agreement with the employer’s federation so that they knew, beforehand, that every January 1, security guards, household helpers and those workers who are minimum wage earners, would know that the increase is coming and they could plan for it.
The last time that the minimum wage was increased, Mr Speaker, was under the PNP administration in January 2016.
It’s a shame that after two and a half years years in office, this administration has not raised the minimum wage. And I say to the minister, who is slated to speak in this debate, if you do not intend to announce an increase in the minimum wage, don’t speak. The only thing Jamaican workers, ordinary workers, expect to hear from you is the increase in the minimum wage.
NATIONAL INSURANCE SCHEME (NIS)
Mr Speaker, I now move to the National Insurance Scheme. Every day, more than 100,000 pensioners are waiting anxiously to hear from the Government, from the Cabinet, from the minister, and from the prime minister on their increase. The last time that these pensioners were given an increase was under the People’s National Party’s administration, in January 2013, over five years ago.
These men and women, whose sacrifice, toil and sweat have helped tremendously in determining our nation’s development path, deserve a new and better deal.
Now, while you are busy, buying into new companies, and investing the funds, and investing in new construction, the pensioners need something too. They didn’t reap the benefit of the $1.5 million because they are already below the threshold, but all the price increases have hit them.
Mr Speaker, these are poor, retired people who have already made their contribution to the development of the country, and for many, the NIS pension is all they depend on. Minister of labour, I beg you; show some compassion and offer the increase to our pensioners and announce it when you speak.
Mr Speaker, every country has foreign workers, and we in Jamaica abide by the Foreign Nationals Act that gives permission and offers guidelines as to how work permits should be issued.
However, it cannot be that work permits are issued by the labour ministry for household helpers, store clerks, casual workers on construction projects.
The labour ministry should not be issuing work permits to foreigners to play reggae music in our hotels while scores of our Jamaican musicians need employment. It is a disgrace to have someone coming to Jamaica on a three-month visitor’s visa and then process to open a shop in Santa Cruz or downtown Kingston without being a legal resident. Every country, including Jamaica, must enforce its work permit laws.
Mr Speaker, the present labour ministry is very weak in enforcing the work permit law.
WORKERS’ HEALTH AND SAFETY
I move to the health and safety of our workers. I was shocked to hear what the workers on the Mandela Highway had to say about the working conditions they must face.
Not even a first-aid kit was on the site and the Ministry of Labour sits back and does nothing. In fact, the workers came on radio and TV to speak about it, not even drinking water on the site.
No protective gears, etc, were on site. No foreign contractor should come to Jamaica and be allowed to operate a construction site without these basic amenities for the safety and protection of the workers of Jamaica.
And it is the Ministry of Labour that is supposed to enforce these rules to protect the workers’ interest. The Ministry of Labour is asleep.
The Occupational Health and Safety Bill was tabled in this Honourable House several months ago. The minister opened the debate, but the debate has not been concluded. Let us restart the debate and pass this important bill before we go on our summer recess.
FARM WORK PROGRAMME
The farm work programme has been going on for over 70 years. The maximum age for farm work is 45, male or female.
I would recommend from the benches of Opposition that the age limit be raised to 50 years of age.
A 50-year old man is a strong man, a 50-year-old woman is a strong woman, they can work on the farm work programme.
Prime Minister, you are about 46, you couldn’t go on the farm work programme right now, they say you are too old, right? And you are a strong man. These are things we need to look at, and the next PNP administration will be making the adjustment.
Also, every single farm worker has to leave from wherever they are resident in Jamaica to come to the Ministry of Labour to do their medical. Again, I would recommend you utilise medical services in western Jamaica to conduct the medicals for the farm work programme. This would prevent people from Anchovy, Negril, Lucea, from travelling to East Street to do their medical.
These are changes that we intend to make. If you want to make them now, we will be happy for the people will benefit. If you don’t want to make them, the next PNP administration will do it.
THE PATH PROGRAMME
Mr Speaker, I move now to a very topical issue nowadays for those who benefit from the welfare of the state, the PATH programme.
In the last several weeks, a lot of parents and seniors, old people,70, 80, have been receiving these letters telling them that they are now off the PATH programme. Seventy-four-year-old ‘Miss Pearl’, from Clarendon, received a letter telling her that she is to report to May Pen by the April 30. However, she received the letter on May 21. When she opened the letter, she fainted.
Mr Speaker, the little PATH money was all she depended on. The letter said she was no longer eligible and advised her to re-apply in May Pen.
The Ministry of Labour should have social workers to check these seniors. How can you cut off these people like that without compassion?
We have had to take people off the Food Stamp programme, because their economic situation had improved. So, we understand. But you can’t just take off someone like that. You must do the proper investigation. None of that is taking place right now, the ministry is not fulfilling its responsibility to the people of Jamaica.