Trinidad and Tobago


Here’s to good health

June 07, 2000
By Terry Joseph

ONE of the few effective strategies still available to the Public Services Association (PSA) in its current negotiations with the Government, is to have its president, Jennifer Baptiste, take a vow of silence.

Leading from in front is also an option, but having been dragged into a conflict not originally of her making, Miss Baptiste apparently believes that by going into encomium at every opportunity, she will swiftly diminish the embarrassment of having her troops march off before a battle plan was ready.

After repeated utterances from her, all designed to have us believe that the nurses were engaged in industrial action, Miss Baptiste is now attempting to convince us that no such thing occurred. Had she the will to steer the nurses away from their ill-advised action, or merely hold her tongue in the first place, at least that aspect of the still escalating problem might have been avoided.

No technical definition of strike-action can now erase images broadcast nightly on the television news and reinforced daily by the print media, of nurses sitting in the cooling shade of trees, lounging through periods when they should have been properly at work. Even where the stoppage masquerades as an all-day prayer meeting, or for the purpose of attending a Le Roi Clarke rally, it sure as hell was not work—at least, not of the variety for which taxpayers agreed to remunerate them.

Apart from being a fundamental breach of the basic work-for-pay contract between employer and employee, it is at least immoral to demand money for something you simply did not do. In normal circumstances, the legality of such an action would hardly become the subject of debate, because everyone would identify it from early as a boldfaced attempt to rip-off taxpayers.

But let me hasten to say that there is nothing normal about the circumstances of the current standoff. Firstly, as workers engaged to supply an essential service, strike action by nurses is illegal. So where Miss Baptiste, in swashbuckling fashion, presided over the work stoppage, she must have known that she was leading her troops into the valley of debt, as they would not be paid for the period.

Now, don’t get the impression that it is just PSA bumbling that has brought us to the cliff. Government has been equally (or perhaps even more) reckless in its handling of what, at the onset, was a relatively straightforward industrial relations matter.

The Chief Personnel Officer (and a government replete with labour leaders) should have known that merely sending out circulars advising of an intention to withhold pay for a perceived work stoppage does not— in industrial relations terms—constitute a step in the formal grievance procedure. Everyone knows that individual letters should have been sent to each nurse suspected of delinquency, outlining the nature of disciplinary action that would follow if the trend continued.

In any event, both the law and common industrial practice indicate that monthly-paid employees are not treated like hourly-rated workers, whose wages are normally calculated from records of actual time spent physically on the job. Procedures for cutting or withholding pay are consequently different for both groups.

And having clocked in for every shift, the nurses had registered for work. If they failed to perform their duties, the matter should have been addressed in the fashion described above. By arbitrarily deciding on a shortcut to the most severe disciplinary action (short of outright dismissal), the employer discarded the agreed grievance procedure at every sequence and is therefore guilty of deepening the conflict.

To further complicate the issue, the PSA continued to intensify its industrial action, apparently unaware that public sympathy for its original cause had been on the wane, if not expired altogether.

The arguments are also taking place in a politically charged environment. Even though it may be the quintessential election gimmick, no government can easily agree to pay for work not done, except it wishes to bring about complete social collapse. On the other hand, the nurses cannot simply back down without losing face, after having lost salary.

But since the principles of good industrial relations have been largely ignored by both sides and to such degree, perhaps equally radical approaches to the solution should be examined.

For openers, the Government could try offering the nurses personal loans equivalent to the money they lost through foolish advice, and allow them to repay it at minimal instalments, so that we can at least get the hospitals running again, while civilised negotiation resumes to settle those and other matters.

What is clear so far, is that neither politics nor posturing is going to solve the problem. And if my solution sounds far-fetched, what’s yours?

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