Opposition legislators last week attempted to walk the tightrope between not coming across as anti-worker but protecting business interest.
St. Clair Leacock, Parliamentary Representative for Central Kingstown, performed political acrobatics during the debate of an amendment to the Protection of Employment Act 2003.
The Government said the change was necessary to clarify its intentions after a judge ruled last year that the law meant that workers are entitled to severance pay after two years of employment.
But Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves told Parliament that was not the intention of his party when it changed the law in 2003.
Leacock told Parliament he would not give Government lawmakers the benefit of saying the New Democratic Party “does not want poor people to get money”.
“But I am simply saying a better argument would have been to come here today to see how we could reform labour relations in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
“… What we could have been doing to see more apprenticeship schemes going, what we could have been doing by way of incentives? … Those are the kinds of things I want to hear. Doing small things that mean big things in the economy, that is what I would have been happy at hearing, Mr. Speaker,” said Leacock, a businessman.
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He gave examples of situations in which employees are terminated because their behaviour negatively affects the company’s operations. But employers still have to give these terminated employees severance pay.
“I simply want to say, Mr. Speaker that I feel the pains for anyone — and we in the New Democratic Party feel that pain — who has to lose his or her job for whatever reason. But I want to say we are also very sensitive that we do not place additional burdens on the employers who have it difficult already to keep their enterprise going.
“And so, Mr. Speaker, to the extent that there is a probationary period of six months, … there can be an argument that the severance payment does not have to start at day one. And I am not afraid to be here to seem to be sympathetic with those people who are creating jobs and employment,” he said.
Leacock also accused the government of a “do as I say but not as I do approach.”
The Government, he said, “has to be seen to be an example”.
He noted that in an April 10 letter, the Labour Commissioner told the Port Authority that Port Police officers are entitled to three years increment, as the workers claimed.
“The Labour Commissioner is saying that Government’s statuary boards are ignoring best practice. Have you intervened in this as yet, Honourable Member for Central Leeward? You’re familiar with this letter that the workers are not being properly treated?” Leacock said.
“This ain’t a matter of severance pay now. It is three years they can’t get their increments, much less to talk about severance. And God only knows if [it] has been indicated in the public debate they are to be fired, what will become of them. Walk the talk, please,” Leacock said.
Meanwhile, Government lawmakers accused Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace of attempting “damage control” as he began his contribution to the debate.
“Mr. Speaker, we always have to look at what is happening to our economy in terms of how we frame changes we may see coming and the legislation to support it. And I regard the member’s presentation as important. Important in the sense that it recognised our reality and therefore, the context in which we make presentation must draw attention to these realities,’ said Eustace, an economist.
“The issue before us is that we are looking at a matter that affects workers in particular, but it also affects employers. So let us look at the reality and the totality because you cannot leave out the employees of the government because these things have to be dealt with. I just want to urge us, Mr. Speaker, all of us, to spend a little more time … looking at these matters in a broader perspective in the interest of all our people.
“We on this side will support the two years …” Eustace said.