There has never been a Minister of Labour, senior or junior, in this country quite as ill informed, blundering or precipitate as Mr Keith Scott, the present incumbent. It is nothing short of extraordinary that the President, who after all appointed him, has not intervened to achieve a more rational disposition of human resources at the highest level in the Department of Labour, or at a minimum, held a reading of the riot act and moved to issue specific instructions on how to proceed. President Granger’s failure to insist that Minister Scott adheres to the law now leaves the population ‒ more particularly parents and children ‒ facing the prospect of another teachers’ strike about a week from now.
Mr Scott’s latest example of bungling comes in the form of imposing the Chairperson of an Arbitration Panel on the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) in circumstances where that is illegal. According to the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) he has proceeded on the basis of Section 4 of the Labour Act Cap 98:01, which provides for a ministerial role when compulsory arbitration is involved. However, this does not apply in the present circumstances, because both sides in the dispute have agreed to move to arbitration under the collective bargaining process.
As such, therefore, what the Minister should have applied is the 1990 GTU and Ministry of Education Memorandum of Agreement which followed a nine-day strike, and lays down that within 24 hours after a full resumption of work, both sides will meet to determine the terms of reference for the Arbitration Panel. As we reported last Wednesday, this memorandum states, “the arbitration panel shall comprise of one member nominated by the union, one member nominated by the Ministry and a Chairman mutually agreed upon by both parties. The Ministry of Labour shall nominate the chairman in the event the parties fail to reach agreement.”
Trade unionist Mr Lincoln Lewis has emphasized in the media that even in the case of a failure to agree, the operative word in the quotation above is ‘nominate’, not appoint. The GTUC had a further reference, this time to the Memorandum signed by the GTU and the Ministry of Education on September 6, 2018, which states, “A chairperson [shall be] agreed to by the employer and the GTU.”
Well Mr Scott, who, it seems, is still stumbling along like a novice, has a companion lurking in the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Education. On Friday we reported on a letter issued from the ministerial Secretariat there which cited the provisions of the 1983 Memorandum of Agreement ‘The Avoidance and Settlement of Disputes.’ It states that “during the consideration of the matter Identity is what you can say you are according to what they say you can be – Jill Johnston in dispute under the grievance procedure, there shall be no strike, stoppage of work whether of a partial or general nature, go slow, boycott, picketing, retardation of production or any other interference with the Ministry’s operations by the Union, nor shall there be any lock out or any other form of interference by the Ministry…”
Teachers were then “kindly advised” that any action which violated the requirement would be illegal, and the ministry would ensure that appropriate consequences would follow.
GTU General Secretary Coretta McDonald was anything but intimidated by this warning, informing her union’s members that it emanated from the Minister’s secretariat, and Ms Henry was not the authority empowered to issue instructions to teachers; that right lay with the Chief Education Officer. That aside, she adverted to the fact that they have not started the process of arbitration yet, and arbitration is the context in which the section quoted has relevance. The two parties, she told have not even completed the terms of reference, let alone started the arbitration process.
After any number of pre-election promises, teachers are now discovering what the public servants discovered some time ago; politicians’ pre-election commitments are little more than hot air. The GTU wasted no time in trying to negotiate a multi-year salary and non-salary benefit with the new government, starting in 2015. The talks proceeded nowhere, and after the collapse of talks two years later and the threat of a strike, the President intervened and set up a high level Task Force which included in its number the Finance Secretary from the Ministry of Finance.
This phase of proceedings lasted for five months, but the government balked at implementing its recommendations which involved giving teachers a 40% increase on 2015 salaries and 5% for the four remaining years of the agreement. This would have translated into $4 billion for teachers, and $10 billion if the principle were to be extended to all public servants. As a consequence, the government rejected the Task Force report as deficient.
As an alternative teachers were offered a $700 million ball park figure for 2018 increases, but this was rejected by the teachers, and the union called a strike from August 27 after the ministry showed itself unprepared to go to arbitration. It was during this period that Minister Scott distinguished himself again by calling the teachers “selfish and uncaring”, an aspersion made worse by the fact that it was his department which was supposed to be the conciliating agency between the union and the Ministry of Education after the Task Force fiasco. As a consequence, he should have had no comment to make of any kind; however, not untypically, he appeared blissfully unaware of what constituted the kind of appropriate behaviour the situation demanded. On that occasion he was obliged to apologise to teachers, but it was already too late.
Facing the embarrassment of so many teachers on the street with more joining every day, the Ministry of Education indicated it was prepared to go to arbitration after all as the GTU was demanding, and a meeting between the two sides was held on the terms of reference and the matter of a chairperson. Both sides rejected the other’s nominees, although those proposed by the ministry were bizarre choices at best, since they were both serving members of the public service, which clearly disqualified them on conflict of interest grounds, as President of the GTU, Mark Lyte, wasted no time in pointing out.
So now we have reached the position where earlier last week Minister Scott and Chief Labour Officer Charles Ogle “appointed” Dr Leyland Lucas, an academic, as Chair of the arbitration panel. The Department of Public Information quoted Minister Scott as saying, “those acts of appointing the chairman [are]… placed squarely, after the breakdown of the two sides, in the province of the Ministry of Social Protection. It’s not a question of acceptance or rejection. We have gone ahead, acted in accordance with the law and we have chosen the person who in our opinion happens to be the best.”
His lamentable misunderstanding of the laws has already been noted, but the problem is he has created a situation where the government has now to back out of a corner, never an easy thing for governments to do. The simplest method was that suggested by the GTU at the end of last week, namely for Dr Lucas to voluntarily withdraw from the appointment; however, up to the time of writing he has had nothing to say about the matter. If he does not withdraw, then we are in for a stressful period in labour relations which, on the basis of his record, Mr Scott is not likely to ameliorate. And this time, the President should note, FITUG and the GTUC are reading from the same page in the text book.