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President of the Industrial Court Deborah Thomas-Felix, centre with vice president Herbert Soverall, left, and chairman Essential Services Division Lawrence Achong, right, pose for a photo during the opening of the Industrial Court yesterday.

Industrial Court president Deborah Thomas-Felix has warned employers against wrongfully terminating workers, who fall ill or have family commitments during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Delivering her annual address during the opening of the Industrial Court’s 2020/2021 law term yesterday, Thomas-Felix said the court noted an increase in the filing of industrial related offences against employers, who had improperly sought to terminate workers without consultation since the start of the pandemic in March.

She said, “The pandemic ought not be an excuse to flout the principles and practices of good industrial relations, to flout labour standards, and to flout the laws of the country.”

While she noted that termination is only permitted in certain circumstances, she said there is a lawful process of retrenchment that could be used due to the economic fallout faced by companies as a consequence of Government’s coronavirus measures.

“Employers are reminded they must respect and adhere to the rule of law when making these tough decisions, which would affect the livelihoods of workers and the survival of their businesses,” she said, as she called on employers especially smaller businesses without a majority recognised union to still hold decisions with employees before taking drastic decisions.

While she noted that there had been complaints by employers and workers over delays by the Board of Inland Revenue (BIR) in terms of processing such retrenchment and corresponding severance payments, Thomas-Felix said it may be due to an increase workload.

“While I am not defending the BIR, these are not normal times, the reality, as I see it, is that there is an ongoing rotation of public servants including the staff at the Board of Inland Revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Thomas-Felix said.

Throughout her speech, Thomas-Felix repeatedly called on employers and trade unions to engage in meaningful social dialogue to help resolve issues in an amicable way and find solutions including new working arrangements.

“We should always bear in mind that there is life after COVID-19 and consider the immense value to be gained if we adopt and adhere to International Labour Standards, particularly social dialogue to assist, to promote and to maintain a system of opportunities for all and to obtain decent, productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and dignity in the future,” Thomas-Felix said.

“The main take away from this crisis is that the workplace, and the world of work as we know it, have changed forever and that employees and trade unions play a key role in assisting workers to navigate these uncharted territory and in assisting to stabilise the labour market,” she added.

During her speech, Thomas-Felix also weighed in on ongoing public health regulations, which restricts large gatherings. Trade unions were not initially considered essential businesses under the regulations, which have since been amended to include them.

Thomas-Felix noted that while freedom of association is a fundamental right it may be fettered during periods of crisis.

“Although these restrictions would affect large gatherings by unions, it is my respectful view that they do not amount to an abuse by the State but rather a decision by the State to protect citizens,” she said.

She suggested that trade unions should continue to find creative means using technology to advocate for their members and to engage in protest action, if it is required.

Thomas-Felix noted that the court was not immune and during the pandemic it held 503 remote case management hearings via video conferencing.

While Thomas-Felix noted that the service received mostly positive reviews, with court users requesting similar hearings for open court cases and conciliation, she said that the extended services were not possible due to the court’s constraints with resources.

Referring to the court’s statistics for the 2019/2020 law term, Thomas-Felix noted that there were 905 new filings—505 less than last year.

She attributed the marked decrease to the pandemic as the court was initially closed for three months but noted that the temporary closure assisted the court in increasing its disposition rate from 60.9 percent in 2018/2019 to 78.1 percent during the last term.