What about the workers? By Peter Roffey
Monday 30th September 2013, 5:00PM BST.
THE fact that former Guernsey employees of defunct shipping company Huelin-Renouf are to get no redundancy pay while their colleagues in Jersey and the UK do should come as no surprise.
Our States have always been pretty much pants at employee protection. I don’t know if it’s because Guernsey’s government has traditionally been dominated by employers, but they’ve always tended to regard employment legislation as too difficult, too expensive, too discouraging to new business, or simply not a high priority.
It’s true that there is a pretty civilised system in place for settling pay disputes which can’t be resolved by free collective bargaining, but that’s just about as far as it goes.
Often the issues of real concern to workers go far beyond whether they get a 3% or a 5% increase in their wages. And in most of those other areas of employee protection, Guernsey has been left woefully behind.
I’m sure I’m not alone in finding myself embarrassed to come from one of very few places in the developed world to have absolutely no statutory redundancy provision. Not only is it deeply unfair on those being laid off, it actually encourages multi-territorial companies looking to downsize to select their Guernsey operation for any job losses.
I understand that too onerous a statutory redundancy law could put companies off investing in Guernsey in the first place, but there has to be a happy medium.
The situation with bankrupt companies is even worse. Many solvent businesses looking to shed jobs will pay those they lay off in Guernsey the same as those made redundant elsewhere.
They don’t have to, but decent employers will feel the moral imperative to do so on a voluntary basis as best practice.
But where a company has gone to the wall, the administrator has a clear duty to creditors not to disperse cash through any ex gratia payments. In short, if you are not legally entitled to a disbursement, then you can forget it.
How would statutory redundancy payments change all of that? Well, it would obviously depend on the drafting of that law. At one extreme, in some countries the taxpayer actually underwrites the pay-offs to those losing their jobs.
The more likely model for Guernsey would be to give the former employees a statutory claim on the bankrupt firm so that they are treated in the same way as other creditors. A halfway house could be to make them priority creditors, but that could be seen as rather unfair on all the other people owed money by the defunct business.
I am no lawyer and I am certainly not suggesting one solution or another, but I have been shocked by Commerce and Employment’s seemingly laid-back attitude to this important issue. I know it might not seem like a sexy area of policy compared with creating Silicon Guernsey or photo-voltaic power stations, but it matters like heck to those losing their jobs.
It’s not the first time the States have put workers’ rights at the back of the queue. Take gender equality in the workplace, for example.
Back in the 1980s I pressed for legislation on equal pay because the treatment of women was shocking. Both the Guernsey Growers Association and the Hotel and Tourism Association had officially published pay schedules that showed women getting much lower pay than men for the same work.
Alas, the States refused to outlaw such blatant discrimination back then and took ages to do so.
When I re-joined the States in 2000 I still found that female cleaners at the Board of Health were paid less than male cleaners. In fact the female supervisors even got paid less than the men they supervised.
The situation at the Dairy was even worse. ‘Dairy hands’ (male) got paid considerably more than ‘Dairy maids’ (female). I don’t know which was worse – being paid less or having a job title which made you sound like a buxom wench with a wooden yoke across your shoulders and pails dangling from the ends. Eventually an equal pay law was introduced, but still not for work of equal value.
Such tardiness and seeming indifference hasn’t gone away. Even after their recent meeting, when C&E agreed to move redundancy rights up their agenda, they didn’t give the impression that it was going to be tackled any time soon.
How many more Woolworths or Huelin-Renoufs do we need before Guernsey employees are regarded as a top priority?