The Russian-controlled Bauxite Company of Guyana Incorporated (BCGI) was Thursday scolded about hiring employees on a written contract that could possibly cheat the country’s coffers of national insurance and income tax deductions.
Top Russian and Guyanese officials of the company, Ministers of Labour, Chief Labour Officer and other senior officials met at the Labour Department of the Ministry of Social Protection to address more than 30 grievances that workers had complained to ministry representatives during a recent visit to the mine sites.
Consultant to the Labour Department of the Ministry of Social Protection, Francis Carryl said, after a preliminary examination of a copy of the Contract for Service that was given to him at the meeting, it appeared to be more a contract for a permanent employee. “My cursory examination of this document here suggest to me that these are employees because the same people that you are calling contractors are under your guidance and control,” he said, adding that the provisions include hours of work, rate of pay, and overtime. “All the conditions for a regular contract are in this document so by attaching this label, by calling it a Contract of Service, it is not,” he said.
He said steps would be taken to ensure that the company complies with the rules because workers stand to lose in case of injury on the job. “This is extremely serious because at the end of the day if an employee is injured, he is left exposed and that is not what we want,” he said.
Chief Occupational Safety, Health and Labour Officer, Charles Ogle said calling casual/ piece-rate employees contract workers was aimed at bypassing the law in the payment of National Insurance Scheme (NIS) contributions and Pay As You Earn/ income tax to the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA), and deprive workers of pension schemes and bonuses.
The company committed to provide a list of the permanent, casual and job-rated employees that includes their dates of appointment.
Ogle noted that some workers have been working with BCGI/RUSAL for as much as four years on one to three month contracts.
Minister of Social Protection, Volda Lawrence welcomed commitments given by the BCGI/ Russian Aluminium (RUSAL) to resolve the issues that were being raised. “This is what we want to see and this is what we want to hear that we can address the issues which are before us in an amicable way so that both the employer and the employees can be given their right; not for a joke, not for play, we are not here to play,” she said.
Junior Minister of Social Protection, Keith Scott was visibly upset when he was told that workers’ working hours were cut down to two hours because the air-conditioning unit in a vehicle was not working. “The employee has a right to refuse to work until it’s fixed. You have a right by law to either give him alternative employment until you fix it or just fix. You are not doing the employee a favour,” he said. When another RUSAL official sought to justify several workers operating the hot equipment at two hours per person because they would not deny, Scott said told him that he could not determine whether the workers have respiratory problems.
Concerns were also raised about the number of meal and snack breaks that workers are entitled to if they work 12 instead of eight hours. Minister Lawrence said workers complained that if they refused to work more than 12 hours, they were threatened and penalized. Company representatives committed to reviewing the current number of breaks and also put in place a Medical Panel to determine whether workers, who have been on sick leave for a protracted period of time, are fit to return or their services terminated.
Another outcome of the talks was the decision by Russian Aluminium (RUSAL) to establish an Occupational Safety and Health Committee by August 31, 2016 and the holding of its first meeting.
The company officials denied that huge medical bills were being deducted from workers who were taken to Balwant Singh Hospital. “For a very long period, their take-home earnings is so small that it’s meaningless.” However, Industrial Relations Adviser to BCGI/RUSAL, Mohammed Akeel said if they were taken to a public hospital they would not benefit from insurance medical scheme refunds. Responding, Lawrence informed that there is a cut-off point at which workers would get medical expense refunds after which “somebody has to pay and I suspect it is the employee. The Minister recommended that a meeting be held with the workers, Department of Labour officials and the insurance company to arrive at a collective decision.
The government and BCGI/RUSAL representatives also addressed allegations of poor quality food, with Lawrence suggesting that the presentation of the food appeared to be less than satisfactory. Other issues dealt with were poor ventilation and lighting in the kitchen and dormitories.
Junior Social Protection Minister Scott described a cluttered 40-foot container that is being used as a lunch room, change room and locker room as a “pig pen.”