The time it’s taking to settle matters brought to the Chief Labour Officer is a major source of concern for Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Dale Marshall.
Under the law, a person who considers himself to have a complaint against his employer will apply to the Chief Labour Officer. This triggers the section of the Employment Rights Act, which requires a conciliation within 45 days.
“I think that the whole point of the Employment Rights Tribunal is to move things through swiftly,” Marshall said Tuesday during debate on the 2020/2021 Estimates.
“I am just a little bit concerned that your approach to dealing with it, as well-meaning and good-intentioned as it is, may really not be helping to serve the purpose that it should be.
“Under the statute, if you’re not able to complete that conciliation within 42 days, the Chief Labour Officer must send the matter to the tribunal,” Marshall added.
Minister of Labour and Social Partnership Relations Colin Jordan said there are currently “200 plus cases” before the tribunal.
He pointed to a number of challenges facing his ministry, as it tries to settle the cases before it.
“One of the reasons why we continue after the number of days in the statute, to attempt conciliation, is to continue our efforts to reach resolution so as not to put inordinate burden on the Employment Rights Tribunal,” Jordan explained.
“[Given] the number of labour officers that we have, the number of calls that we get for what might be considered more routine questions, queries, challenges, is one of the things that hamstring us a bit.
“We will be intensifying our efforts in putting more information in the public domain so that hopefully, over time, the number of calls will fall so that labour officers can devote more of their time to actually working on the conciliation that some effort needs to be put into, rather than answering questions – the answers to which could probably be otherwise provided to those persons who need the answers,” Jordan added.
But Marshall remained resolute that the labour ministry must follow the rules.
“Forgive me, but I happen to be the Attorney General, so these rules mean a lot to me. The law says that you must, except in extenuating circumstances, make a report to that effect to the tribunal,” he said.
“Now, I understand the Minister’s concern because the tribunal is having challenges with space to have hearings, sharing a conference room, things of the sort, but I don’t think that it is fair to the litigants for you to decide that you are going to intentionally slow down things so as to spare the tribunal. That doesn’t help anybody.
“I really think that we should follow the law – it says if you can’t effect settlement within 42 days, you shall make a report to that effect to the tribunal itself, so I’m afraid you don’t have the discretion in the matter.
“At the end of that 42 days and you’ve not been able to effect a settlement, you must send it on. It then requires us as the executive, as the Government, to ensure that the commission itself has the ability to deal with those things fairly and quickly,” Marshall added.
Chief Labour Officer Claudette Hope-Greenidge said between April 2019 and Sept 2019, her office received 3,209 complaints, of which 65 disputes were conciliated and a further 78 referred to the employment relations team.
She explained that there are only nine labour officers in the department to deal with the high volume of cases.
“There has been some retirement and staff changes in the industrial relations section, and as a result, of the nine labour officers, approximately half would still be categorized as relatively new,” she said.
“The learning curve for the technical officers in the department is pretty long. In under a year, it is not likely that you can get the person to perform a conciliation role or safety and health role at the level that would be desirable.”
Meanwhile, Jordan said while his ministry, like that of the Attorney General, is interested in people getting justice, they are faced with even more challenges.
“The other thing is, we have been using a model which does not speak to people’s only work being a tribunal chair,” Jordan said.
“So, tribunal chairs find themselves using the time between their other responsibilities – their occupation as attorneys at law – and the time that they can devote to the work of the Employment Rights Tribunal is in many cases, limited.
“We will engage with your good self and your good office to work through if we should have dedicated tribunal chairs, persons who can devote the kind of time to the very serious responsibility and allow the litigants to have justice served in a timely manner,” Jordan added.