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TAWU not prepared to accept changes to Severance Payment regime

Sen. Andrew Lewis – will not go for changes to severance pay law

Labour representative in the Upper House of Parliament, Senator Andre Lewis has disagreed with suggestions made by a top female hotelier on the island that the law governing severance payment for workers in Grenada needed to be revamped and that a new one put in place in the post-Covid-19 period.

In an exclusive interview with THE NEW TODAY, Sen. Lewis who heads the powerful Technical & Allied Workers Union (TAWU), said that the issue of severance payment boils down to what the agreement is between trade unions and employers in the hotel sector.

“…It is a discussion we could have and we are willing to have,” he said, but quickly added that, “We do not have this (severance) as a problem in Grenada.”

However, Sen. Lewis warned that the vast majority of workers on the island will not vote in the affirmative for severance payment in times of crisis but will prefer to remain on the job.

He said the Collective Agreement signed by the union does not mandate that after two months off the job “you have to pay everybody – it says that it has to be a choice of the worker to seek severance and go”.

“It is not automatic where the employer (has) to pay everybody – it says those who are willing to go,” he remarked.

According to Sen. Lewis, there is room for flexibility as some agreements do not specify that workers are due severance payment after two or three months off the job.

The issue of severance pay is at the heart of the current dispute between TAWU and management of Grenada’s most internationally-awarded hotel in the south of the island – the Spice Island Beach Resort (SBT).

The female hotel manager said it is impossible for employers to find the kind of financial resources to pay employees who might have to be paid off in a severance package during a pandemic like Covid-19.

She suggested that the law should be amended by government to include a clause that whenever there is a pandemic that severance should not apply and that management must give an undertaking to rehire all workers who are sent home from the job, when conditions improve.

Sen. Lewis said that one of the options that is available for employers is a payment plan to be worked out with the unions on behalf of their membership in the sector.

He pointed out that it is only Spice there is a problem with severance payment and this was not triggered by the workers themselves but the operators of the hotel.

“If you know that you can’t afford to pay what you are obligated to pay, why call the people and say am sending everybody home? “If you can’t afford to meet your bill then you can hold a discussion as to how best could one be afforded to do it and one of the options can be a payment plan.

According to Sen. Lewis, the most important thing for the employer in times of crisis like Covid-19 is not to trigger the severance payment clause as the situation does not warrant sending everybody home.

He said that in the case of SIBR, the majority of workers did not want to go home as it was felt that the downturn in the hotel industry will not last forever.

“…It was the hotel management who insisted ….we are sending everybody home and that is the unaltered fact,” he said.

“We don’t have that problem in Blue Horizon, we don’t have that problem in Calabash,” he added.

Sen Lewis pointed an accusing finger at Spice for the impasse with the workers, saying that the severance pay issue arose solely because “of the approach by management” on the matter.

“The issue here is – how do you manage your obligation when it arises?”

Sen. Lewis flatly rejected the notion as put forward by the female hotel manager that in times of pandemic and crisis when management will have no choice but to send home workers that severance payment should not be applied.

He said: “No, I do not agree with this. I think the existing circumstances, existing collective agreement, and the existing principles are applicable and should continue. What we can do (is) where those things arise is to determine how one manages.

“I know the pandemic has brought us challenges but I still go back to the issue – how many work places in Grenada are facing that issue (severance payment)? It has become a public issue because of the Technical & Allied Workers Union at Spice Inn. You do not seek to cure something that is not a widespread issue,” he told THE NEW TODAY.

Sen. Lewis noted that in a pandemic and crisis situation, it is not the norm for the entire workforce to want to go home and claim severance.

In addition, he said the main mantra of the Labour Movement in Grenada and throughout the region in this current Covid-19 period and any natural disaster is the preservation of jobs.

The trade union leader stressed that when a worker is severed in these times, the fact of the matter is that the money given to them cannot do anything much especially in a scenario in which finding a new job is almost non-existing as unemployment will be high.

“This is not a case where the economy is normal, this is not a case where business activity is normal and therefore one has a number of choices. The key thing is to hold onto jobs,” he said.

Sen. Lewis expressed fears that if the proposal to do away with severance during a crisis is entertained, it would lead to a number of employers using the situation to get rid of a number of employees and when they come back on stream to take back who they want.

This proposed change, he said, will give “the employer the upper hand to wipe a clean slate – (get rid of) the workers that they do not like (and) to give the employer a chance to wipe a clean slate and to start afresh”.

“If that amendment is made it will place power in the hands of the employer to take advantage of a situation and come up with a clean slate of workers at the business place,” he said.

According to Sen. Lewis, the only workplace on the island where there is currently an issue with severance is at Spice Inn because the hotel is to be blamed as “it engineered this discussion” despite the best advice of the union.

“That is a fact, that is a historical fact,” he quipped.

Sen. Lewis told THE NEW TODAY that over the years many of the top hotels in the south of the island were paying workers below the minimum wage and “illegally” under-paying workers as stipulated by law and TAWU had to wage a struggle to get them to fall in line.

Specifically on the Spice Inn issue, he said the union has put forward proposals that “we can make certain compromises, we can go into certain arrangements but one of the key aspects has to be the guaranteeing of people’s jobs”.

“There is a reluctance to do that,” he said, and reiterated that the workers were not the ones who went to the company and discussed the collective bargaining agreement and asked for severance payment.

“It was the company who called the workers and say, look – we are sending everyone home but we are not paying you what the Collective Agreement says – we are giving you one week,” he added.

Sen. Lewis disclosed that the union is currently waiting on what he referred to as a proposal response from the hotel on the last position it held in talks before the Minister of Labour that it will only consider severance payment for all the workforce and even those who want to remain will have to go.

“Our union has indicated that we are open to continue the dialogue with the hotel although time is running out,” he said.

He said the hotel was expected “to get back to the Minister (of Labour) for us to know whether or not they have something new or is the same ole, same ole.”

The TAWU boss said the union is seeking a guarantee from the hotel management that it will take back those employees who want to come back to work when it reopens and that anything put forward by SIBT will have to be taken back to the workers for them to decide upon.

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