Labour Code Amendment Bill passes in the Lower House

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Amendments were yesterday approved in the House of Representatives to the law governing employees’ rights on the issues of fixed-term contracts and severance in cases where a company is being sold or otherwise disposed of to a new owner.

Except for a few minor suggestions on changing what was initially proposed, the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Code Amendment Bill of 2019 received general support from members of both sides of the political divide.

The Explanatory Memorandum of the Bill said it takes into account the changes that have taken place in the employment landscape over the years.

The first critical amendment incorporates provisions on fixed term contracts from the Termination of Employment Convention, 1982 (No. 158) and the Termination of Employment Recommendations (No. 166) and Antigua and Barbuda is a signatory to both Conventions.

The attorney general said the changes seek to end abuses of employers who “have been found over the years to have this propensity to grant contracts for two months, three months and terminate them, another three months, terminate them, another three months, terminate them. I am not going to say that the intention is to deprive the employee of becoming a full-time employee and therefore get the benefits to which they are entitled, but the practice must stop.”

A proposed change to the law, identified as Section C7A, titled Contract Workers, defines who is a contract worker and the entitlements of such a worker.

Firstly, it states that “A fixed term contract shall outline in writing—(a) the specific tasks and responsibilities of the employee; (b) the period of employment; (c) the terms and conditions of the employment arrangement; and (d) any other information which is relevant to the employment arrangement.”

This type of contract may be renewed by mutual agreement between the employer and the contract worker.

The most significant part of the change to come, is that, “A contract worker shall be deemed to be a full time employee if that worker’s fixed term contract—(a) has been renewed by the employer on two or more occasions after the initial issuance; and (b) the total contractual period for which the worker has been employed amounts in aggregate to one year or more.”

This particular planned change does not sit well with the MP responsible for Barbuda, Trevor Walker, who said it would make investors lose interest and the legislators should consider how competitive the tourism industry is across the region.

His recommendation, which was in the end ignored, was that the worker should have been employed on contract for up to two years before being considered full time.

As it relates to the amendment coming to Section C44 of the Labour Code, the House supported it in full.

The amendment now stipulates that an employee is entitled to severance pay “not only as a result of redundancy” but also as a result of the “business being sold or otherwise disposed of to a successor-employer.”

Additionally, under the proposed amendment of section C44, an employee is given the option to accept severance to which he or she is legally entitled, from a predecessor-employer if a successor-employer takes over as the new employer.

“If, however, the employee does not want to accept severance payment from his or her previous employer, then he or she has that option, provided that he or she is being retained by the new employer,” the Bill states.

It should be noted that in the Labour Code Amendment Bill, it is stated that “Clause 5 consequentially amends section of 176 of the Banking Act as it relates to transfers of banking business and the rights of employees employed in such institutions after the transfer of a banking business to a transferee financial institution.”

It therefore means that if the sale of Scotiabank (Antigua) is approved after this Bill becomes law, those workers will have the option for severance or to continue with Republic Financial Holdings which announced late last year it would be buying the Bank of Nova Scotia in Antigua.

The sale is being held up by Prime Minister Gaston Browne who has refused to issue a vesting order to confirm the process.

Meanwhile, Benjamin, the attorney general, said the main organisations that deal with Industrial relations in Antigua and Barbuda – Employers Federation, the trade unions and the government – are in support of the Bill and played a part in putting it together.

The Bill now has to go to the Senate for debate.

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