Labour Minister Colin Jordan has sounded the alarm over numerous industrial relations issues thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic.
But not even the peculiarities of the COVID-19 crisis exempt employers from abiding by the law, he has warned.
Jordan revealed to journalists that his office continues to receive complaints about the mistreatment of workers who contract the deadly virus or are quarantined pending testing after potential exposure. In some cases, he said employers were demanding that workers report to work despite being instructed to quarantine by the Ministry of Health.
On occasion, Chief Medical Officer Dr Kenneth George has been asked to intervene and inform employers of their obligations.
Jordan said: “I still think that I need to say, for example, if you have been asked to quarantine at home or in any other place, then you cannot be at work. So no employer can say to any person who the Chief Medical Officer has asked to go into quarantine… that you have to come to work.
“It is not legal or allowed for anybody to flout an instruction of the Chief Medical Officer or from somebody who is acting on behalf of the Chief Medical Officer.”
Employers are not obligated to pay workers for the time spent in quarantine, said the labour minister but stressed that a measure of “fairness and reasonableness” is expected. He added that in light of the pandemic, employers would be asked to carry a burden comparable with the one asked of them during the economic adjustment of 2018.
Jordan said: “That philosophy for this government remains and so when we speak as we often do with employers, we ask employers to help with sharing the burden. We say that recognizing there are different depths of pockets in relation to businesses.
“So there are some things that some businesses and others are not able to do and we recognize that and try to lean on employers as far as possible to be fair and reasonable and to share the burden.”
The labour minister also responded to questions regarding vacation leave, which some employers have attempted to enforce during the national lockdowns. He explained that according to the country’s labour laws, once 14 days’ notice is given, workers may be sent on vacation leave.
The pandemic has also resulted in numerous layoffs at short notice, but the minister maintained this ought to be a last resort. Again citing labour laws, Jordan explained that except in “special circumstances” employers are allowed to send home large numbers of workers without six weeks’ notice.
While acknowledging that certain lockdown measures may qualify as “special circumstances”, he stressed that employers are still required to consult with the Chief Labour Officer and workers’ representatives on such short-notice layoffs.
Jordan said: “What I am saying, therefore, is that sending a letter informing the Chief Labour Officer [of impending layoffs] and expecting that to be considered as consultation is against the law.
“In other words, it is illegal. The act speaks specifically to consultation… the workers’ representatives must still be informed and discussion should still continue.
“The Ministry of Labour and Social Partnership is and will continue to ensure that there is fairness, reasonableness, justice and adherence to the law and the laws of this country.
“All laws, including labour laws are still in effect in spite of the challenges of this pandemic situation in spite of the fact that we are in very turbulent and uncertain times.
“All laws remain in force and so we expect all employers, workers and people generally to adhere to those laws. We as a ministry are not going to allow any particular group to take advantage of another group.” (KS)