Two weeks after the official launch of the new Labour Code, government officials made their first public TV appearance to discuss a little about what the monumental legislation will mean for the employer and the employee.
Labour Department Commissioner Olivine Maynard and Deputy Commissioner Stephanie Faulkner-Williams were accompanied by the Code’s co-author and consultant Clive Pegus on the Government Information Services television show “Spotlight” Tuesday evening to discuss the document’s public implementation.
The programme, which was simultaneously broadcast on ZBVI, came in response to widespread public concern and questioning that had mounted around the 188-clause piece of legislation since it was first introduced to the House of Assembly in its draft form last year.
The Code was passed in the House of Assembly in late May, released to the public in July, and brought into force on Oct. 4.
The labour commissioner explained that the new Code, which replaces its 26-year-old predecessor, brings the Labour Department more power and foundation to enforce laws.
“There were some issues that arose daily in the department, and we didn’t have the means—the foundation—in which to resolve these matters,” she said on the GIS programme. “So we saw the need for the new Labour Code, in which to address all the problems that we are facing in the present day.”
Now that the department and Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour has more power, Mr. Pegus said the labour laws have grown “teeth” – and both the public and government is responsible for understanding and implementing its bite.
“A Labour Code is only as good as it is administered and applied effectively,” the legislation’s consultant said. “And to be administered and applied effectively, employers and employees must be aware of the Code.”
The Code has been Gazetted and is now available online, or at the Passport Office for a $30 fee.
In the first of a two-part Spotlight series, Mr. Pegus delved into the eight “most important” of 19 principles underlying the Code’s policies.
Those principles mentioned include Virgin Islanders’ and belongers’ preference in the workforce; workers’ rights; dispute settlements; pensions; health and safety requirements; and equal employment and anti-discrimination standards.
And the Code’s provisions now apply to every employee and employee outside of the public sector, he explained.
This includes those working for statutory bodies, but excludes those working for the police department.
However, he added, both public and private sector employees and employers are susceptible to provisions in the Code dealing with health and safety standards and the protection of children.
Ms. Maynard led the programme by talking about what the Code means for her job.
“She has more power. … She is also an inspector,” she said about her position. The labour commissioner is also now responsible for overseeing the collection and analysis of data for the territory’s labour market. She’s also responsible for assuring compliance with the department’s work force. The commissioner also now ensures that health and safety standards are in compliance with outlined international standards.
In an interview shortly following the Code’s release to the public, Ms. Maynard said that health and safety standards would not be enforced for about a year. However, she did not mention the lapse on Tuesday’s programme.
The labour commissioner continued, explaining that two “dispute officers” are currently available within the department to field complaints.
She explained that if the dispute is not settled in that stage, the labour commissioner is handed the complaint and given 30 days to resolve the matter before it is turned over to Omar Hodge, the minister of the Natural Resources and Labour Department.
“And if he can’t get a resolution, it goes before the tribunal,” she said.
As defined by the Code, the tribunal will consist of a chairperson, appointed by the NRL minister, who has been practicing law for at least 10 years. The NRL minister will also appoint two “other members … in consultation with Cabinet, for a period of two years.”
However, the deputy commissioner stressed that matters preferably should be resolved in-house, by human resources personnel.
The Labour Department previously lacked sufficient powers and penalties to properly enforce the laws, Mr. Pegus said, adding that the new Code allows them the opportunity to properly delegate.
“[Penalties] were not sufficiently dissuasive,” he said. “Those penealties have now been increased. Under the old code, the penalties were as little as $250 and $20; they have now been increased to [about] $5,000. So the Labour Department now has teeth.”
Continuing, Mr. Pegus discussed the language in the Code surrounding gratuities.
According to the legislation, when an employer in the service industry applies a set percentage for gratuities, that amount is pooled for a period of four weeks, and disbursed among the employees.
A “gratuity committee,” comprised of two employee representatives and an employer, would be created in businesses where there are at least five employees. This committee would decide how the gratuities would be divided among the employees.
The employer, however, would be allowed to deduct 7 percent off the top for “administration charges,” Mr. Pegus said.
However, “tips” given aside from the set gratuity rate would not be susceptible to the pooling guidelines.
This new measure effectively revamps the way employees and employers viewed gratuities, the deputy commissioner said.
“What was happening before is persons were using gratuity as a form of payment—and it really isn’t,” Ms. Williams said. “Gratuity basically is a service charge. … It’s yours.”
Mr. Pegus also clarified what new “normal hours of work” would mean in the workplace.
Now, according to the act, lunchtime is not considered an on-the-clock benefit.
“So an employee is expected to work eight hours in addition to the meal interval,” Mr. Pegus said. “But bare in mind this is the minimum condition—an employer can always have a workweek that is more favorable than the 40-hour workweek.”
To be continued
The labour officials also answered a few questions from callers, including clarification about the Code’s history, where the legislation could be found and read, and information about who would be affected by the Code.
One caller asked about the new pension scheme, one that has attracted numerous questions from the public before the government programme.
Mr. Pegus responded: “Next week we will be considering issues relating to the retirement benefits scheme, or the pension scheme, so I deliberately did not want to mention it now.”
The hour-long programme was cut short after only a few calls due to time constraints, but is scheduled to resume next week.
“The Labour Department is now embarking on a full campaign to roll out the Labour Code in terms of educating the public,” Ms. Williams said, adding that a public meeting would be held in Road Town tonight, and on the sister islands starting next week.
As of Beacon deadline, further information about these meetings was unavailable.
The duputy commisioner said that the education process is now unfolding.
“How we’re going to get this information out is ongoing,” Ms. Williams said. “We’ll have to sensitize the public about it, and, moving forward, we’ll bring that to a reality.”