Parliament last week amended the Protection of Employment Act amidst submissions by the Government that they were clarifying a change made in 2003.
The new amendment makes it explicitly clear that a worker is entitled to severance pay from the first day of employment, and not only after two years.
Minister of Labour, Maxwell Charles, in presenting the bill, said there was some ambiguity in the old law.
“The rate of severance pay that is payable by the employer shall be (a) two weeks pay of each year of continuous service for two to 10 years (b) three weeks for each year of continuous service from 11 to 25 years (4) weeks pay for each year of continuous service in excess of 25 years,” he read from the old law.
He said that over the years, some employers interpreted part “a” of the law to mean that severance must not be paid for the first two years.
He noted that that is how Justice Monica Joseph ruled in a case last year.
But Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, whose Unity Labour Party government amended the law in 2003, said he does not agree with the judge’s interpretation of the statute.
He said Attorney General Judith Jones Morgan’s also gave him an opinion “which doesn’t square with Justice Joseph”.
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Gonsalves noted that the State was not a party to the legal action on which Joseph ruled.
“I read the case and studied it, that it was not the intention of Parliament to do the first two years,” said Gonsalves who is a lawyer and Minister of Legal Affairs.
“I was here, I moved it, and I know what was my attention. They found a way with the words to get around the intention of the whole statute. I would have liked to argue this in front of the judge. And I believe we would have had a different verdict…” he said.
“That was not the intention of the Government when we passed the amendment in 2003. So we are here now correcting that to make sure that no future lawyer or judge, unless the NDP (New Democratic Party), by some miracle, comes here and want to change it back and to reverse the gains made by the workers and their party which defends them, which is the Unity Labour Party,” Gonsalves said.
“So I want the workers to hear it clear and straight. We passed the law with a particular intention, a lawyer went to court, the judge agreed with the lawyer, we are correcting that…” Gonsalves said.
The Opposition supported the amendment but Northern Grenadine representative, Dr. Godwin Friday, who is also a lawyer accused the Government of changing its position on the law.
Friday day that the numbers used in the legislation were not legal terms of art and clearly defined the difference severance payment periods.
“We in this House have to be very careful and more scrupulous in the way in which we prepare and present legislation,” he told fellow lawmakers.
“I know that because of the nature of our Parliament it is easy to come in and correct something subsequently and so on. But it makes us look as if we are not careful either in the way we do our work or that we change our minds, or we don’t take the business of the Parliament seriously,” Friday said.