WORKERS’ RIGHTS, WORKERS’ PLIGHT


Editorial Comment

We received this unsolicited commentary a few weeks ago and debated long within the team about whether to publish it. We decided to do so as most of us were convinced by the clear setting out of the writer’s arguments and concerns.

 

G.A.Dwyer Astaphan

 

ID-100233084 WORKERS’ RIGHTS, WORKERS’ PLIGHT

Certain bad practices have been taking place in St. Kitts for a long time.

 

How widespread these practices are, I can’t say, but they pose a problem and, in my opinion, even a threat. One of such practice is this: some businesses operating here recruit workers from India. They do so through agents in India. And the contracts which some of these young people from India sign are bad in law, and worse in conscience. Indeed, they are downright inhumane.

 

These jobs need to be advertised; but they aren’t. And they really should be going to citizens of St. Kitts & Nevis, but they aren’t. And what’s worse is that work permit applications, in a number of cases, willfully and falsely state that these people are being offered administrative, supervisory and other technical work when, in truth, they’re brought here to be sales clerks and basic workers.

 

In the past, Government was either being fooled by, or it simply went along with, these questionable and unfair applications. In some cases, the dishonesty of the applications was compounded by the inclusion of documents showing fake and highly embellished academic credentials of applicants.

 

One way to address this problem would be to stop people from coming here, save in justifiable and exceptional circumstances, to be sales clerks, supervisors, assistant managers and managers in any enterprise in our Federation. And, again, save for exceptional circumstances, to stop any person from coming in to do any job which for which local skills are available. And where the human resource isn’t locally available, it must be sought first in the OECS, then CARICOM.

 

(As an important aside, let me state that while I wholeheartedly support, and will fight for the right of, local workers getting the first jump on job and other opportunities here at home, it’s equally important that we seize these jobs and other opportunities with the right attitude and industriousness).

 

Another way to address the problem is for very stiff penalties to be imposed on offending and fraudulent employers and applicants.

 

President Barak Obama, the leader of the world’s leading capitalist nation, and the man who has overseen possibly the greatest national job and economic recovery in modern American history, said as much last week when he told his audience at the University of The West Indies in Jamaica (and I’m paraphrasing him) that the people of a country must be the first beneficiaries of any development on their soil. They can’t be pushed aside or left out. Sooner or later, a backlash will come. And this may well be one of the causes of the antisocial behavior and crime that we’ve been seeing over the years.

 

Let’s examine the cases of two employment contracts negotiated via agents in India.

 

In the first case, the work permit application was for a Human Resource Manager. No advertisement was placed in the media. No citizen of this country was given a chance to get that job. The work permit was granted. The worker was flown in on a one-way ticket, which is odd, because only citizens are allowed generally to enter our country, or any country, on one-way tickets. So I don’t know how that happened. The intention of the employer was clearly to save money, and also to make it impossible, or at least very difficult, for the poor worker to return to India if she was fed up, homesick or sufficiently displeased with the situation here.

 

She was like a bonded servant.

 

Now while the work permit was, as I said, for a Human Resource Manager, the employment contract described the job as that of a Sales Associate, so the employer lied to the Government and obtained the work permit fraudulently. And, as far as I’m aware, Homeland Security doesn’t follow up on these matters to see if they’re being given a six for a nine. And I don’t know if the Social Security Board ensures that payroll contributions are made, and properly so.

 

Here are some terms of this contract:

 

(i)General store upkeep such as cleaning, vacuuming, etc.;

(ii)The employee will be liable together with all other employees for the cost of any missing, misplaced or stolen item(s);

(iii) The employee will get two (2) days off a month, “whichever days the Employer deems appropriate”, and she has “to work from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. or until all remaining tasks are completed”;

(iv) The employee is not to smoke or drink, whether during or after work;

(v) The employee gets a half hour break each day;

(vi) The employee is not allowed to work for a competitor business within a radius of twenty (20) miles of the employer’s business for three years after the end of her employment;

(vii) The employee has to give the employer three (3) weeks’ notice if she wants to quit, but the employer can terminate the employee without notice if sales are insufficient or for any “behavioural misconduct”; and

(viii) The employer will hold the employee’s passport during the course of employment.

 

Do these terms measure up to our law and to the constitutional and human rights of the employee? Not by a long shot. Yet, people are being brought in to work under contracts like this. Robbing Kittitians and Nevisians of work, and robbing and enslaving the people who are brought in to work.

 

As it turned out, the young woman was very unhappy and wanted to return home to India, and she was put through hell.

 

And if you think India is bad, China is worse. But it’s not only India and China. People are being brought in here to work under all kinds of contracts that are offensive to our laws and to the employees’ constitutional and human rights, while callous employers look for all kinds of reasons and ways to avoid hiring Kittitians and Nevisians. Have you visited construction and other job sites and work places recently, where you have to search hard and wide to find a local employee? And if you do find a local person, he or she is likely to be nearer to the bottom of the totem pole than to the top. Have you been to Western Union at the end of the week? Money is going out faster than it’s coming in. And too little of it is passing through the hands of our citizens.

 

I know of a place of employment where payroll contributions are not deducted from the pay of foreign workers ( the Social Security Board ought to consider doing a payroll audit of these operations), and where those foreign workers make three, four and sometimes even five times more money than local people who are doing, or who should be doing, the same work. If the locals are late or sick, their pay is deducted, and they don’t get paid for overtime but they’re expected to work overtime.

 

They’re afraid to speak out, afraid to take a stand, afraid to lose their work, and they feel exposed and unprotected by the relevant authorities, at least until now, as we expect the new Team Unity Administration to ensure that the injustices suffered by our workers under the reign of Denzil Douglas are remedied.

 

These employers to whom I’m referring have no regard or respect for the Protection of Employment Act, for our Constitution, for our Government, or for our people, or for our country.

 

I know of another place of employment whose workers have to write three explanatory letters to three different officials if they are even one second ( yes, you’re reading right, one second) late for work, as shown by the clock in the lobby. Yet many of them work as late as 9 o’clock at night, with no overtime.

 

Back to the work permits. Who has been authorizing them? And are there foreign people actually working here without work permits? Yes, of course, there are. So who is policing the workplaces to clean up and to punish the offending employers and, again, to protect local people?

 

Here are some terms from the second employment contract:

(i)The employee is prohibited from working with any other employer in St. Kitts & Nevis for two (2) years after the end of this contract;

(ii) The employee is prohibited from quitting the job;

(iii) If the employee wants to return to his or her homeland on his or her own accord, he or she has to give the employer two (2) months’ notice and shall pay his or her own airfare back home;

(iv) The employer is entitled to fire the employee at any time without notice if in the employers’ sole opinion the employee has acted in a manner that is not in the best interests of the employer; and

(v) The employee is not allowed, wherever he is and whenever it is, to smoke, drink alcohol, or demand a pay increase.

 

Incredible! And happening here in St. Kitts. In 2015. Part of the Douglas legacy.

 

I know of a recent case in which a young man from India was fired. No reason was given. He was just fired. Then his passport was taken by Homeland Security, and he was locked up overnight to catch a plane back to India the next day, with the poor fellow’s air fare deducted from his money retained by the employer. Why would he be treated that way, first by the employer, then by Homeland Security and by the Police? Who allowed this to happen? Who ordered it?

 

And I’m willing to bet that the Minister of Homeland Security never knew a thing about it, and still doesn’t know a thing about it. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that all or most matters of work permits are handled way below the level of the Minister.

 

I feel sorry for that young man. But with that said, the truth is that he should never have been brought here, and he should never have gotten a work permit. That job should’ve gone to a local.

 

Which brings me to another case. There’s a foreign woman (not a citizen of the OECS or CARICOM) who came just here three months ago, and she has two jobs. She has no special skills, but she has a work permit. I know Kittitians who’ve been looking for work here in the land of their birth, for three years, and who are still jobless! I don’t know how she could’ve gotten a work permit so easily. And as you may know, work permits are specific to jobs and employers. So how can she be doing two different jobs, for two different employers, on a single work permit? Something is wrong.

 

Let me ask again: Who has been giving out these work permits? Who authorized this young woman’s work permit days before the last election? Why is she allowed to hold down two jobs that Kittitians and Nevisians can, and should, do?

 

These things are manifestations of Denzil Douglas’ legacy of manipulation of, and disregard for, the workers of this country over the last twenty years, both as leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister. The Labour Union is nearly dead, workers’ rights and livelihoods have not been protected, they live and work in anxiety, fear and distrust, and in the process, their plight has worsened.

 

The workers of this country, and all people of conscience, should reflect on these things as Labour Day approaches. And as they do, they should give thanks to God that there’s new leadership in this land. Leadership which, we expect, will address these issues, and which will bring hope, opportunity and justice to the workplace, and an end to our workers and people being relegated to the status of second class citizens in the country of their birth.

 

The $16 million planned payout to former sugar workers is a great step in the right direction and should symbolize for all and sundry the difference between ‘the me first’ former Administration and ‘the people first’ Team Unity Administration.

 

Photo courtesy of Free Digital Photos.net

 

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