Published in the Sunday Guardian, February 17th, 2019

Just another of his PR stunts or not, in the past week the Public Service Association’s leader, Watson Duke, threatened a sickout due to a dispute over health claims by some 400 workers at the Housing Development Corporation.

The merit of his claims is something to be sorted between the PSA, HDC’s managers and, if needed, the relevant tribunals. However, what cannot be ignored is Mr Duke’s threat of having public servants skipping work in a coordinated way because, to put it in plain English, that is a strike and that is illegal.

This is not the first time Mr Duke has used some crude play with words to call for public servants to down tools. Last year, following the government’s decision to close down Petrotrin, he urged public servants to take a day of rest and reflection on the same day trade union leaders called for a mass protest against the oil company’s closure (which flopped, anyway).

In 2017, he also found himself in a controversy over whether he was calling for a sickout for air traffic controllers.

Apologies in advance for the sexist comment but if only Mr Duke could be man enough to call a strike a strike and stop hiding behind linguistic subterfuges that do not fool a primary school student.

But there is a reason for the carefully chosen words. That´s because the Industrial Court has a history of adopting a narrow interpretation to the legislation by ruling in terms of what the action is named, not what the action is in substance.

This makes no sense and must stop. When a call for action is made that involves the unauthorised withdrawal of labour (be it for prayers, rest or anything else), that’s a strike. And an illegal one.

As Trinidad and Tobago’s answer to the Swiss knife, capable of having several roles in one, Mr Duke must also remember he is a member of the Tobago House of Assembly. As such, we should hope, he should be a stickler for how the law must be applied to all and followed by all. And, if not happy, he can always set the example by helping change the rules instead of just ignoring them.

But don’t hold your breath as consistency is not his forte. After all, last year the Industrial Court made the PSA, under his leadership, reinstate some of its own workers after they were fired for taking part in protests over their pensions and wearing their BIGWU t-shirts. Those judged to have been illegally fired included some of the PSA’s own trade union local branch representatives – an unmistakable case of trade unionism friendly fire.

However, there is a bigger issue behind Mr Duke’s theatrics.

First of all, government after government has failed to act promptly and resolutely whenever these threats were made or carried out. For that reason, there is little worry from the part of the PSA leadership (and its members) that anything will happen should they fail to turn up for work.

This problem goes beyond industrial disputes. As we all bear the consequences, we all know that the government (regardless of who is in power) is mostly inept when it comes to managing attendance and performance of its own employees, irrespective of whether hired directly or via state enterprises.

This in itself is problematic enough and, to cap it all, there is also little or no incentive for those dealing with industrial relations in the state sector to take on the unions given the lack of support from above and because they open themselves to vitriolic attacks, if not downright bullying, if they act.

If in doubt, remember the 2016 case involving the OWTU’s leader, Ancel Roget, and his fabricated story against former NP senior human resources manager, Geeta Ragoonath. She won a landmark defamation case against Mr Roget, including exemplary damages, due to his ‘disregard for the truth’, ‘failure to apologise’ and ‘the obvious intent of causing damage to the sensitive and dynamic employer-employee relationship at the expense of Ms Ragoonath’s reputation’. Mr Roget also let go the opportunity to reduce the damages by issuing a public apology to what he did.

The current legal framework doesn’t help, either.

Under T&T’s labour laws, there is no provision for compensation when trade unions like the PSA act unlawfully and cause damages or losses to the employer in question, be it state or private enterprises.

In other words, apart from a rap in the knuckles for their bad behaviour in the shape of a $10,000 fine, breaking the law by staging an illegal strike (or sickout or whatever they may call it) brings no substantial financial penalties to the union responsible for it, irrespective of the financial losses their actions may have incurred.

Oddly and unfairly, the same law states that if the employer commits an industrial relations offence, the fine is double what the unions pay (despite the fact many businesses have lower annual revenues than a number of trade unions).

This must change because, as we know from things like speeding or parking illegally, financial penalties usually work wonders when it comes to thinking twice before breaking the law.

It is also about equity and fairness in industrial relations. Our industrial legislation must provide equal levels of responsibilities (and exposure to punishment) to both employers and trade unions. This is not an outlandish demand – many countries around the world have this principle enshrined in their industrial laws and we need something similar.

Then Mr Duke may think twice before calling, once again, for sickouts or days of reflection. For the good of the country and his own members, he may even start paying more attention to the country’s industrial laws and the Civil Service Regulations that guide how our public servants should act and behave.