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#BTEditorial – Our rights, the Constitution, the Employment Rights Tribunal

by Barbados Today
5 min read

Very few Barbadians can attest to knowing any substantial part of what is contained in our Constitution. It is a regrettable state of affairs, but it is a fact.

In our primary schools, it is hardly ever referenced. We are apparently so busy preparing for English Language, Mathematics and the Composition Paper, that primary school is largely consumed with “getting into a good school” after writing the Barbados Secondary Schools Entrance Examination.

At secondary school, the Barbados Constitution does not form the body of any intellectual debate or core subject. At the tertiary level, students who are pursuing legal studies will probably be exposed to its contents.

For the rest of the population, people assume that certain “rights” must be somewhere in the constitutional protections they enjoy.

Is freedom of the Press in the Constitution? Is there a right to information? Following the last general election when some election workers were not given an opportunity to vote because of mix-ups in their scheduling, the question as to whether the right to vote was emphatically outlined in our Constitution was debated.

Does the Barbados Constitution emphatically state how many senators without which the Upper House is properly constituted? That matter is still somewhere in the halls of our courts.

Are the constitutional rights of a member of the Public Service such as a teacher, being infringed when he or she has to resign his or her job in order to seek political office?

Is denying two men or two women in a same-sex relationship the freedom to be married and adopt children an infringement of their constitutional rights?

This list of questions and uncertainties about what rights are contained or ought to be in the Barbados Constitution is long.

When Barbados became a republic on November 30, 2021, debate raged about us making such a significant switch without a complete overhaul of the Constitution.

For many, the change to republic status without the accompanying revamp of the legal anchor on which we operate, was superficial and a feel-good move.

However, public sentiment, even among the more hardline monarchist who love the pomp and pageantry of the British royal family, have warmed to the idea of a Barbadian president, and the feelings of self-worth which it generates.

Now that government has officially empanelled a Constitutional Reform Commission to review and make recommendations to the administration on what our republic’s new constitution should reflect, it is beginning to dawn on us the magnitude of the assignment.

The Commission, headed by retired Justice Christopher Blackman has contained within it some very worthy personalities with big public profiles.

The other Commissioners are Senator Reverend Dr. John Rogers; Senator Gregory Nicholls; former Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite; President of the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union, Mary-Anne Redman; President of the Barbados Council for the Disabled, Kerryann Ifill; Muslim Chaplin at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus (UWI), Suleiman Bulbulia; businessman Chris deCaires; Attorney-at-Law Sade Jemmott, and student advocate, Khaleel Kothdiwala.

University of the West Indies lecturer, Professor Cynthia Barrow-Giles, will serve as Secretary

Each of them with his or her own significant background and interests is a commendable Barbadian citizen, who we expect will live up to the responsibility entrusted to them.

At the same time, we are not surprised by the public criticism over who has not been included. We expect that this Commission will draw on the views of a cross section of the population,  but we are not convinced by the argument that the Commission cannot be expanded to include the National Union of Public Workers, or even constitutional advocates such as senior attorney-at-law Garth Patterson or Michelle Russell.

Russell and Patterson are two legal minds who have been actively handling real-life constitutional matters and publicly engaging on many controversial constitutional issues.

Then there is the question of what happens to the Employment Rights Tribunal (ERT) which is chaired by retired Justice Blackman.

The respected jurist has been highly critical of the Government’s failure to adequately resource the quasi-judicial body, which is now suffering from the same malady that afflicts our court system – backlogs and delays.

Under Justice Blackman’s chairmanship, cases were being adjudicated but we must now wonder if the backlog and delays will become more acute, now that the ERT head – a septuagenarian, is turning his attention to this assignment which is also time-sensitive and extremely expansive.

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