MPs have mixed reactions to civil code draft changes

~ Article on short-term contracts removed ~

PHILIPSBURG–Minister of Public Health, Social Development and Labour Affairs VSA Emil Lee presented the draft National Ordinance to amend the Civil Code to stem the abuse of short-term labour contracts and some other national regulations during a meeting of the Central Committee of Parliament on Tuesday.

The draft amendment was initiated by the National Alliance (NA) fraction and Member of Parliament (MP) Frans Richardson six years ago in an effort to stem the widespread abuse of short-term contracts, which is stifling to employees subjected to them.

MPs had mixed reactions to the draft. While one MP called it “a total failure,” another said he would support it once it benefited residents.

One of the highlights of Lee’s presentation was the omission from the draft of Article 614A, which specifically regulated when a fixed-term or regular contract could be used. Lee said the article was seen as essential in curtailing the abuse of short-term contracts.

There had been a lot of discussion in the Tripartite meeting of business, Government and labour unions on this particular issue in attempting to further define the article, but in the end it was concluded that there were still too many loopholes and it left several unanswered questions related to the various types of seasonal work and jobs that can fall under projects.

Taking the negative advices of the Social Economic Council SER and the Council of Advice regarding this article into consideration, a decision was made to delete the article in question and put more focus on Article 668a, which seeks to regulate the “revolving door” issue.

Lee said the revolving door occurs when persons are given a series of fixed-term contracts back-to-back and never become permanent employees. As St. Maarten requires seasonal workers, the option needs to remain that persons can be hired for parts of the year.

To prevent abuse, the article regulates the maximum number of contracts for workers and the duration for which an employee can remain on a temporary contract. It was agreed in the Tripartite meeting to reduce the maximum period of a contract from 36 to 24 months, while working towards full labour reform. Additionally, efforts would be made to increase compliance by distribution of booklets targeting employers and employees, as well as elevated inspection activities.

Lee said the draft national ordinance seeks to accomplish a number of points, including addressing short term or temporary labour contracts; the transfer of enterprises; pregnancy and maternity leave and gender equality in contracts, amongst other things.

On the issue of pregnancy and maternity leave, which is currently 12 weeks, the proposal is to increase this to 14 weeks. The draft also addresses the possibility of employees receiving pay for deaths in the family and for childbirth and other such cases. Additionally, it “safeguards” the reintegration of disabled employees into the workforce.

The proposed change relating to the termination of workers during transfer of enterprises states that if an employee decides to dissolve his/her labour agreement due to substantial changes in an organisation during the transfer of enterprise, the employer will still have to pay severance even if the employee decides to leave on his/her own accord. If an employee decides to leave and there are no substantial changes, then no payment will have to be made. Other aspects of transfer of enterprise remain as is.

The goal of the transfer of enterprise regulation is to prevent “the Pelican debacle of 2010,” by ensuring that employees retain their rights and benefits that have accumulated or have been accrued leading up to the sale of the business.

Another highlight of the draft is the regulation of payslips enabling employers to issue payslips electronically. The current provision is for payslips to be issued in hardcopy.

The draft also proposes to grant paid leave for extraordinary circumstances such as childbirth, death, funeral of a member of the household or a relative and other areas, as well as for other extraordinary situations as decided in labour agreements.

The draft also regulates the reintegration of disabled workers. Lee said reintegrating disabled workers into a small organisation may cause harsh financial consequences for an organisation and the idea is to make sure that it is reasonable and possible to be executed rather than obligatory.

At the start of his presentation, Lee made it clear that discussions had been held with stakeholders in the Tripartite meeting and unanimous support had been given.

Several MPs gave their views about the draft following Lee’s presentation.

United St. Maarten Party (US Party) MP Frans Richardson said the draft had been initiated by him and NA. He said the draft the Minister presented is “different,” but it is “better than nothing.”

NA MP George Pantophlet said it has been six years since the original proposal was submitted by NA to stem the abuse of short-term contracts. He believes the issue of the revolving door is still not addressed. While the proposal in the draft submitted by the Minister is to reduce short-term contracts from 36 to 24 months, Pantophlet has been working on a proposal to reduce the term to 12 months. “We have lost six years already before we came to this [stage – Ed.]. I am still not pleased, but it’s better than nothing. I hope it won’t take another six years to reach where we have to reach,” he said.

NA MP Ardwell Irion and United People’s (UP) Party MP Tamara Leonard made a case for paternity leave for fathers of new-borns.

NA MP Rodolphe Samuel said 24 months is too long for workers to be on a contract before becoming permanent. Workers cannot take a six-month or a 24-month contract to a bank for a loan, he stressed. He also enquired whether the draft can be posted on Parliament’s website for the public to peruse. Samuel said the Minister has done good work, but said when NA began its efforts to stem the abuse, it was not easy. He said also that workers need to be given a thorough elucidation of what their rights are.

NA MP Romeo Pantophlet said permanent functions should be identified as permanent functions and they should be filled first by locals. He urged the Minister and the Tripartite to seriously consider this and to further plug holes that exist to curtail the abuse of short-term contracts.

Democratic Party (DP) MP Perry Geerlings questioned how the proposed changes will be financed. “How are we going to afford it?” he asked, noting that while everyone wants the best, parties have to consider whether it can be afforded. “If not, we can encounter issues in the near future.” Geerlings said perhaps it is time to look at addressing the minimum wage instead.

NA MP Hyacinth Richardson was firm in his disappointment with the draft. He is disappointed that it took six years to get to this stage and called the draft amendment “a total failure.”

UP MP Franklin Meyers said the draft probably needs to be tweaked here or there, but if it can improve the life of “my people” he will support it, because “it is the first step in the right direction.” Meyers said, “We can finally say we finally will do something about the abuse of short-term labour contracts.”

DP MP Sarah Wescot-Williams asked who will benefit from the proposed changes and requested statistics on the issuance of employment permits.

The meeting was adjourned after the presentation and the round of questioning and comments on the draft.

Source: The Daily Herald