Kaieteur News – Teachers who are on strike are not entitled to pay for the days during which they are off the job because of industrial action. Strikers need to understand that for the days they are off the job, the government will be within its rights to deduct pay from their pay. The right to strike is not a protected right under the Constitution of Guyana. What is protected is freedom of association, or the freedom to belong to a trade union of one’s choice. The right to strike is not an integral part of freedom of association, as some labour leaders would want us to believe.
Strike action is not protected by any law in Guyana, except for essential workers who are usually not allowed to strike but who can once certain procedures are followed. When workers strike, they do at their own risk. Employers are not obligated to pay workers who are on strike, and usually do not unless the terms of resumption so provide.
The government has deemed the present strike by teachers as illegal but has not explained the basis upon which it has come to this conclusion. The GTU strike is not illegal. It may be in breach of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the union and the government but striking does not constitute a breach of the law; it may constitute a breach of the contract of employment.
The government has also not indicated what conditions have to be met before workers can proceed on strike. The Labour Act provides for means to apprehend disputes. The Minister of Labour is vested with the power to inquire into the circumstances of the dispute, to take expedient steps to promote a settlement of the dispute.
These powers do not create conditions which have to be satisfied before strike action can be taken. Indeed, the greater obligation is upon the Minister of Labour to inquire into the causes of a labour dispute and to take expedient action to promote a settlement. Somehow, it appears as if there is a view that because the dispute has not been referred for conciliation, that the strike is illegal. This view has no basis in the country’s labour laws.
Teachers on strike must appreciate that the government is not obligated to pay them for the days they took strike action. Indeed, it is not likely that the striking teachers will not be paid for the days when they did not work.
Good sense however should prevail on both sides. The GTU has to be very clear as to why it called this strike. If it was dissatisfaction over the failure of the government to speak about a multi-year wages package for teachers, it should come out and say so. The government is contending that negotiations were taking place and agreement was reached on a number of measures, many of which have been implemented.
The GTU cannot have it both ways. If it was in talks with the government up to last week, and unless those talks have reached a dead-end impasse, then there is no justification for a strike.
The GTU cannot split the negotiations into two sections: one of non-monetary benefits and the other for wages and salaries. All the issues should be put on the table and there should be a consensus that notwithstanding the agreements reached so far that all the demands of the union should be considered in their totality and responded to within a specified period.
The GTU, having flexed its muscle, should therefore go back to the negotiating table with the clear understanding that the wages package should be discussed with a deadline for three months, failing which it will formally invite the Ministry of Labour to intervene in accordance with Section 4 (1) of the Labour Act.
Should talks resume, then at the end of each meeting, there should be an agreement to release a joint statement on the progress of the discussions. This would help make the process more transparent and allow the teachers to appreciate the state of the negotiations.
The major stumbling block would appear that the Government appears very comfortable with imposing salary increases and is reluctant to negotiate with the union because it perceives the union as having a political agenda. It may therefore be helpful if the GTU appoints negotiators that cannot be painted with the brush of political partisanship.
In resolving labour disputes, compromise has to be made on all sides. Once there is an agreement to talk and fixed timelines for decisions, then the striking teachers can go back to work and await the outcome of the negotiations.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of this newspaper and its affiliates.)
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