President General of the All Trinidad General Workers’ Trade Union Nirvan Maharaj.

Calls are being made for the government to initiate labour legislative reform and increase the minimum wage to $20 per hour this year.

In a statement issued on New Year’s Eve, President General of the All Trinidad General Workers Trade Union, Nirvan Maharaj called on the government to protect thousands of workers who have lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said many workers were not getting protection by the existing labour laws and were facing exploitation at the hands of employers.

“This is especially vital in a time when many companies unjustifiably are attempting to use COVID-19 as an excuse to circumvent existing collective agreements, reduce the labour force and force existing workers to multi-task and do two and three jobs at the same time,” Maharaj said.

Saying workers were facing maximum oppression, Maharaj said the government must act in the best interest of the working class and pass laws to protect. Maharaj said there must be a joint platform and agreement to increase the minimum wage to buffer the increase in the cost of living.

“There is also the need for immediate simultaneous reform to the Retrenchment and Severance Benefits Act and the Company’s Act, to protect workers and ensure that they paid benefits, as if they are major creditors, in the event of the windup of a Company,” Maharaj said.

He added, “ This is to ensure that companies cannot use full retrenchment as an excuse to escape their financial obligations to workers.”

Maharaj also said it was essential for an Indemnity Fund to be established so that foreign-based companies can provide terminal benefits to workers in the event a company folds.

“The reform of the Registration, Recognition and Certification Board is also needed since trade unions often face the daunting task of applications for recognition taking years to process and in some cases recognition being granted after some companies have closed down. The process must take no longer than three months,” he said.

Saying the Industrial Court deals with justice, equity and fair play and was not bounded by legal technicalities of criminal and civil jurisprudence, Maharaj warned, “We must not allow rules and regulations and technicalities geared towards the civil and criminal courts to be blindly imported into the Industrial Court.”

Maharaj also called for reform of the process of hiring Industrial Court Judges.

“This seems to be the purview of the political directorate and linked to this is the urgent need for security of tenure of Judges and adequate compensation to ensure fair and impartial Judgments at all times and the maintaining of the independence of the Industrial Court,” he added.

Maharaj also called for reform of the Industrial Relations Act, to ensure that the Industrial Court can enforce the awards and judgments it delivers.

“As it stands the Industrial Court has no powers of enforcement and judgments have to be registered at the level of the High Court for said judgments to become awards of the high court, and enforced at that level. This is very expensive and also undermines the jurisdiction of the Industrial Court,” he said.

He revealed that many Companies ignore awards and judgments knowing that the process can be daunting for unions and ordinary workers.

“It is also imperative that the question of cost should not apply to Industrial Court judgments which are appealed. Trade Disputes in the interest of the ordinary man should not be subjected to an award of cost. Many companies use this method of appealing judgments knowing fully well that many ordinary workers and even Unions may be hard-pressed to enforce a judgment because of the fear of having to pay not only their legal fees but additional cost as well,” he said.

Maharaj said the time had come for these reforms to be implemented as the working class was facing increased burdens within recent times.