Consultant Clarence Richardson evaluates initiative law short term labor contracts

POSTED: 06/15/11 1:36 PM

“Recognize seasonal workers in the law”

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – The National Alliance’s initiative law to curb abuse with short term labor contracts is “a very positive move,” labor and management consultant Clarence Richardson says, but he feels that there is a need for a rapid survey to establish the depth of the problem it aims to address. “The perception is that the problem is very large, but the reality is that we don’t know,” he told this newspaper yesterday. “However, the perception is used constantly.”

Richardson, who turned 70 in April, has a twenty-year career in unionism behind him and now negotiates labor contracts with those unions on behalf of companies he represents. That brought him on several occasions face to face with UFA-advisor Willy Haize. On one of these occasions Haize said, “You should be ashamed sitting on that side of the table being an ex-unionist.” To which Richardson cheerfully answered, “You should be ashamed sitting at this table being an ex-convict,” referring to Haize’s 3.5 years imprisonment more than forty years ago for setting the government building on fire in 1974.

Richardson looks at the initiative law from different perspectives. “We have to look at it very carefully,” he says. “We are talking about the livelihood of companies, but also about the livelihood of employees. We must make sure that by correcting something we perceive as wrong does not result in even worse problems.”

On the bright side, Richardson says that the National Alliance’s initiative touches on a subject that has been around for a long time. “This has been talked about for a long time. Now it has been brought to the fore, and now it is being debated. They made the move and that is very positive.”

Richardson adds that, in the debate that will develop now that the draft law has been made available, all parties ought to keep in mind that the opinions of others deserve to be respected. In the end, he says, it is about getting the best results for our community, not about whose ideas will end up in the law’s final version.

Short term contracts do not exist in the law, Richardson says. There are only definite and indefinite contract. A definite contract could be for three or six months, or for one or two years. An indefinite contract is also called a permanent contract, meaning that an employee holding such a contract will keep the job until she or he resigns, or until the employer has reasons for dismissal.

Definite contracts are there for a reason, Richardson says. As an example he mentions a female worker who gets pregnant. “The company may have someone to replace her, but if that is not the case it is able to hire someone for the duration of the maternity leave.

Contract-jobs are another reason for allowing definite contracts, especially in construction. “These contracts are based on the estimated time it takes to finish a project. It could be 6 months or two years,” Richardson says.

Over time short term contracts or 6-month contract found their way into St. Maarten’s economy for seasonal work. Richardson proposes to counter the perceived abuse with these contracts by recognizing seasonal workers in the law.

“Say that a hotel with 150 or 200 rooms needs year-round one hundred employees. Then there ought to be 100 employees with a permanent contract. In the high season they may need 30 additional workers, but they do not replace the employees with a permanent contract, as recognized seasonal workers they’ll get a guarantee that they can come back next year.”

Furthermore, Richardson says, seasonal workers ought to be first in line, based on seniority, when a permanent job becomes vacant. “And during the time the seasonal worker is not working, the company will continue to pay the SVB so that the medical benefits are covered.”

Next step: the creation of a seasonal workers pool. “They ought to get social benefits for the time they are not working. The funding for this ought to come partially from the companies that hire them during the high season. The benefit for the companies is that these workers will be around when they want them back.”

Richardson says that there is a need to look into the role of the local manpower agencies. “They are used a lot these days. Who are behind these agencies and who are they related to? I consider them as a necessary evil. Companies that take their staff from a manpower agency do not have anybody on the payroll. They pay the manpower agency an amount per month and they have no idea what these workers are making, but it is surely less than what the employees who work directly for a company earn.”

Richardson says that the May 1969 workers revolt in Curacao “was due to the role of labor subcontractors.”  (In Dutch: koppelbazen). Koppelbazen were notorious in the sixties, not only in the Antilles but also in the Netherlands for ducking the payment of social premiums and making huge profits over the backs of the workers they hired out.

Richardson says that civil law attorney mr. Wim van Sambeek’s suggestion to create umbrella-collective labor agreements for sectors of the economy (like hotels and casinos) as a good idea. “It would be perfect, but the labor unions are not ready for it. They would have to sit together and agree on conditions, but they are instead competing against each other about winning referenda.”

One of the stipulations in the draft initiative law is to turn abusive short term contracts (those that have been extended more than three times) overnight into permanent contracts. “It is a complex situation,” Richardson says. “There are companies that have done this for so long that they will not be able to handle that. They’ll go belly up.”

Richardson says that, “There are many more short term contracts than people believe,” but he adjusts his statement immediately afterwards. “The perception is that the problem is very large. The reality is that we don’t know.”

Therefore, Richardson says that a rapid survey to collect the raw data on the labor contract issue is called for. “We could have the results within three or four months. The labor department ought to be involved in it and send people out to companies and ask them to show them their labor contracts. Such a study would be useful. It is important to analyze on a tripartite basis how much is perception and how much is real.”


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