Chairman of the Employment Rights Tribunal (ERT) Mr Justice Christopher Blackman carries a significant load on his shoulders as the lead arbiter of disputes involving the cases of unfair dismissal of workers in this country.
Justice Blackman, who enjoyed an impressive career as a jurist on the local Appeals Court bench before his retirement, has been an important advocate, not only for workers who have sought justice from this quasi-judicial body, but he has also pushed for the strengthening of the institution itself.
The ERT chairman has been consistent in his rulings, which have often gone against wayward employers. There have also been cases in which employees were told there was no merit to their claims.
He has advised repeatedly that employers should simply follow the law and give workers due process before seeking to be punitive in the handling of infractions and other disputes.
In a November 2019 address to the Barbados Employers’ Confederation (BEC) Justice Blackman lamented that employers were too quick to fire workers without due process and in flagrant violation of the law, thus leading to them being ordered to make large compensation payouts to workers for unfair dismissal.
“The Employment Rights Tribunal is largely concerned with the process . . . . It speaks to fairness. Largely speaking, employers sometimes act on will, and as a consequence, they have to pay for it.”
Making specific reference to the case of Debra Brathwaite versus First Citizens Bank in which the former employee was awarded more than $300 000, the ERT head expressed bewilderment at the actions of the financial institution.
He queried what would have led the bank to fire Brathwaite – an employee of over 20 years – for a first-time offence that appeared to be an innocent mistake.
The ERT chairman has also had to defend the ERT from unwarranted attacks, rejecting suggestions that it had some animus towards employers.
Justice Blackman has also publicly chastised Government too for not providing the necessary resources to efficiently operate the Tribunal so that it does not replicate the ridiculous backlog that exists in our criminal and civil courts.
Despite the efforts of Justice Blackman to dispose of as many cases through the case management process and eliminate the need to engage in lengthy hearings, we submit that not enough is being done to adjudicate the pile-up of cases brought by aggrieved.
Workers who have been made jobless and their lives upended by the actions of managers and business owners should not face double jeopardy from the system that is supposed to protect them.
The current system is simply not working fast enough. A dismissed worker does not have the luxury of four, five, or 10 years waiting for the ERT to even commence the process, far less see it through to a determination.
Justice delayed is justice denied. If this holds true in courts at Whitepark Road in Bridgetown, it also holds true for the Employment Rights Tribunal. The ERT has been labelled by a Barbados Workers’ Union representative as falling short of its mandate. We concur.
There are too many complaints from dismissed workers that they remain in ERT purgatory with no word on when they will get justice.
Mr Justice Blackman, to his credit, has been most vocal about the lack of a permanent home for the Tribunal, the lack of simple resources like a pool of administrative support staff to effect the proper work flow of the ERT office.
We credit the chairman for his call to empower the ERT to deal harshly with employers who fail to pay awards that have been ordered by the Tribunal.
We also support Justice Blackman’s condemnation of attorneys who are also contributing to delays at the Tribunal by not prioritizing hearings of that body.
We have had promises from Minister of Labour Mr Colin Jordan to provide more backup on the legislative end. He has asserted that drafting instructions have been given to the Chief Parliamentary Counsel’s Office to amend the Public Contracts Act to deny contracts to businesses that owe government and awards to unfairly dismissed workers.
That is a good move Mr Minister but also give the ERT the resources needed to make it efficient so that workers can get a fair hearing in a timely manner.