President of the Industrial Court, Deborah Thomas-Felix. (Image courtesy Industrial Court of Trinidad and Tobago)

Trade union leaders have come out in support of the statements made by the Industrial Court President on mandatory vaccination of workers against COVID-19.

Last week, during the opening of the new law term for the Industrial Court for 2021/2022, Her Honour Deborah Thomas-Felix stated while employers are permitted to introduce a vaccination policy for new employees, consultation is mandatory for it to apply to existing workers.

“In other words, can such a policy be introduced unilaterally by employers in the workplace? The short answer to that question is NO,” the Industrial Court President had advised.

She also suggested that unions and employers consider adding COVID-19 related clauses when entering into negotiations for new collective agreements.

In the wake of her statements and guidance on the matter, the three trade union federations have endorsed her comments, and have indicated their willingness to be part of any social dialogue on the issue, going forward.

The following is the joint statement released today by the trade union federations…

The country’s three trade union federations, Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM), National Trade Union Centre (NATUC), and the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOS (FITUN), would like to publicly endorse the sentiments expressed by the President of the Industrial Court, Her Honour Deborah Thomas-Felix, wherein she spoke to the issue of mandatory vaccination and the importance of the Social Dialogue process.

Her Honour was delivering her address at the Special Sitting of the Industrial Court for the new Law term 2021/2022, and she used the opportunity to speak to some critical issues affecting the Industrial Relations Jurisprudence in Trinidad and Tobago, in the context of the Global pandemic, rapid communication, misinformation, social media dominance and the social and economic consequences that are bedevilling the world.

Of significant note to the Trade Union Federations’, were her statements on mandatory vaccinations and the critical role that a genuine Social Dialogue process can play in the socio-economic upliftment of our society.

The Industrial Court President stated that ‘If the issue of mandatory vaccination were a simple one, governments across the globe may have already implemented national mandatory vaccination policies. Instead, what we are seeing is that most governments are educating their population about the different types of vaccines, the importance of taking a vaccination to fight the Covid 19 virus and they are encouraging their citizens to get vaccinated.”  We can immediately align with this statement coming from such an eminent jurist, as the Federations would have gone on public record and stated that we don’t believe that using the bullying and threatening approach to inspire our citizens to get vaccinated was going to be an effective strategy. We advocated for education and information as a means of displaying good leadership at a critical time in the country’s’ history. We also stated that in the absence of any laws which legitimizes Mandatory vaccinations, we would oppose such a practice which we are seeing openly practiced by the Business sector and subliminally by the government.

Once again, we express our strong support for the sentiments expressed by Her Honour and we urge those in authority to heed her advice when she stated that “The main issue, as I see it, is whether a mandatory Covid 19 vaccination policy can be introduced as a new term of employment to existing employees without discussion and consultation. In other words, can such a policy be introduced unilaterally by employers in the workplace? The short answer to that question is NO”.

With respect to the issue of Social Dialogue, Her Honour was very clear when she stated that “At the Special Sitting of the Industrial Court last year, I spoke of the urgent need for tripartite dialogue among social; partners, namely; government, worker representatives and employers. I expressed the view then, that ‘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. Social dialogue is key to the adjustment which the workplace has to make during and after this pandemic. I cannot overstate the importance of discussion, genuine consultations and compromise, built through social dialogue for the effective implementation of measures to address this pandemic and its impact on the Labour market.”

We must recall, when the Trade Union Federations decided to withdraw from the government set up and controlled ‘National Tripartite Advisory Committee, NTAC, we stated that that “TRIPARTISM is a process of Social Dialogue that has been institutionalized by the International Labour Organisation, ILO, as one that is constituted between the three (3) main Social Partners within the economy, i.e., Government, Business and Labour. The ILO described Tripartism as “the interaction of government, employers and workers (through their representatives) as equal and independent partners to seek solutions to issues of common concern”.

We went on to state that we would be prepared to sit at the table of Genuine Social Dialogue where each party is respected and treated equally and with the decorum that is expected of this critically important process. Once again, whilst we express our full support for Her Honour statements, we would not submit ourselves to any charade by this or any government whose only aim is to gain cheap political points on the backs of the working class in this country.

We therefore, welcome the call from the President of the Industrial Court and stand ready to be part of the kind of Social Dialogue that she is speaking to, and not the type of Social Dialogue being practiced by this Government. We await the Government’s response to our recommendation and call for the implementation of measures to Legally Institutionalize a genuine Social Dialogue Process to avoid it becoming another arm of the Governments Bureaucracy and malaise.

In the meantime, we are ready and prepared to defend the rights of each and every worker in Trinidad and Tobago from the heavy and exploitative hands of some of those unscrupulous employers and the Government.