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Govt ‘to get ILO help’ to beef up Labour Dept

By Emmanuel Joseph

The Mia Mottley administration is seeking outside assistance to modernize the much-criticized Labour Department’s operations.

Minister of Labour, Social Security and the Third Sector Colin Jordan revealed on Wednesday that discussions are underway for the Caribbean Office of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to conduct a diagnostic evaluation of the department.

This comes as General Secretary of the Barbados Workers Union (BWU) Toni Moore suggested last week that many employers do not fear being reported to the Labour Department due to its failure to investigate employee grievances.

Jordan said it was more an issue of the time taken to address complaints rather than not investigating them at all.

He blamed a workforce shortage in the Labour Department for affecting its ability to more quickly and effectively respond to labour issues including complaints and worksite inspections.

“Not that the [complaints] don’t get followed up,” said the labour minister.” They are followed up, but we have resource constraints to the effect that you have persons coming in with issues. So the officers have a number of tasks. People come into the department and the officers have to attend to those persons. You also have persons who are calling in with issues. You got a couple [of] people dealing with persons who have walked in, then you got persons who are trying answer the telephone calls. If you give people the impression that this other call is more important than theirs, that you are going to call them back, then that is an issue in itself.”

As a result, he disclosed that his ministry met with ILO officials in late June to discuss ways the organization can recommend improvements so the department can better serve constituents.

“There is a lot of work…and the complement that we have at this point, may not be sufficient to handle the workload. The Labour Department tries to allocate resources the best way that we can. One of the things that we have done…we have a number of new labour officers, and a new labour officer, by virtue of being new, it may take a little while to be as agile and quick, somebody who was there for 10 or 15 years. That is understandable,” the labour minister told Barbados TODAY.

“We have also spoken to the ILO Caribbean Office with a view of having them do a diagnostic to assess where we are and to make suggestions… that’s the organisation that knows international best practices. So they could give us some idea as to where they think we should go, what’s an optimum number of persons…officers,” he announced.

Jordan said his ministry outlined some of the challenges the department is facing during talks with the ILO officials.

“And they are going to send us a proposal. I can tell you we have not yet signed off on whether they would go ahead and do X or Y for us. We are still in the discussion stage,” he stressed.

“But we have our challenges. The officers work very hard both in the industrial relations section as well as the occupational safety and health section. One of the other things that we will do is that we are exposing our occupational safety and health officers to some element of industrial relations,” he disclosed.

Jordan explained that the reason for exposing those officers to industrial relations is to equip them to become “first responders” if an IR issue emerged while they are inspecting a work site for safety and health-related matters.

He argued that such a move could stave off a potentially explosive industrial relations issue.

“They might be able to tie the bandage that might slow down the bleeding so that you might not go into a major issue,” he stated, adding that “we cannot take them off and make them industrial relations officers, but just exposing them to some of the rudiments of industrial relations so that if there is an issue, they can handle it while doing their occupational safety and health. That might free up some time for the IR officers to do something else.”

The BWU leader had also suggested that the Labour Department was failing workers, pointing out that the number of work stoppages recorded this year demonstrated that many employee issues brought to the department’s attention were not being addressed.

Referring to the recent stoppage and complaints of work conditions at the fast food chain, KFC, Moore said: “The situation of KFC should not have been allowed to happen, and certainly not when we have had instances where my officers at the union have escalated matters to the Labour Department. If you tell a company ‘We are escalating this matter to the Labour Department’, the companies don’t care. All of these are the kind of tensions that cause workers generally to understand that something else is required.”

She contended that although the Chief Labour Officer and supporting staff have several pieces of legislation to support their work, and efforts have been made to increase protections for workers, employees will continue to experience issues within their workplaces if there is no enforcement.

“The Chief Labour Officer in his role or her role can go and monitor, and I don’t think enough is being done in that regard,” she said.

“There is a danger of having good legislation on the books and having poor enforcement. Our labour inspectorate definitely has to be beefed up; the Barbados Workers’ Union under my predecessor called for it; I have made repeated calls for it.

“Certainly in previous years, [I] have called for there to be an improvement in the resourcing of the Labour Department. I don’t only mean in terms of head count, I mean in terms of the skill sets that are necessary to execute.”

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