Attorney General still awaiting written High Court decision on teachers union case

Last Updated on Thursday, 9 May 2024, 21:12 by Writer

Attorney General Senior Counsel Anil Nandlall

Attorney General Anil Nandlall on Wednesday said the State was yet to appeal High Court Judge, Sandil Kissoon’s judgement in favour of the Guyana Teachers Union (GTU) because the written decision was yet to be provided, but with time running out he said the appeal would eventually have to be lodged.

“You’d recall that the judge said that his judgement is already written and will be made available shortly after its delivery on the 19th of April. Well, we are almost three weeks after that date and we have not received a copy of the judgement,” he told Demerara Waves Online News. He said his staff contacted Justice Kissoon’s Registrar by phone, requesting a copy of the judgement during the past two weeks but none had been received.

The Attorney General said he has since instructed his staff to write Justice Kissoon’s Registrar to formally request the judgement. He wants to seek a stay and appeal the decision that found that the GTU’s 29-day strike earlier this year was lawful and legitimate because government had avoided collective bargaining for increased salaries from 2019 to 2023, and as a result the State could not deduct monies from the striking teachers’ salaries. The State had publicly disagreed with Justice Kissoon’s decision on the grounds that there is a freedom to strike rather than a right to strike and to pay striking workers their full salaries will amount to a violation of the constitutional right to property.

Though the Attorney General and his legal team would prefer to read the written judgement before applying for a stay of the High Court’s decisions and a Notice of Appeal is prepared, he said they would likely have to go ahead and do so if the written decision is not provided before the six-week deadline expires. “I still have some time and I will await the judgement. If the judgement is not forthcoming, then I’ll be forced to file the appeal without the judgement – something I wish not to do but time is running,” he said.

While the High Court’s decision continued to be in effect unless they were stayed by an appellate tribunal, he said the GTU had no right to resume its strike on Thursday to pressure government to enter into negotiations for 2019 to 2023. He noted that the Ministry of Education on Tuesday dispatched a letter to the union in response to one informing that the strike would continue on Thursday. With Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education, Shannielle Hoosein-Outar stating that the government was ready to negotiate a multi-year agreement from 2024, the Attorney General said if the talks break down then the GTU should follow the grievance procedure of conciliation and arbitration. “That is the process that has to be activated. That is what the parties bound themselves to but you can only go there if there is an impasse but the fact that one party doesn’t get what it wants doesn’t necessarily result in an impasse,” he said.

“I received your letter dated 7th May, 2024 at 2 PM today (Tuesday). We are quite surprised at the content of your letter and the actions proposed. As indicated before, the Government of Guyana stands ready to continue engaging the Guyana Teachers’ Union on the multi-year agreement from 2024 onwards,” the Permanent Secretary told the GTU President.

The Attorney General said neither his Chambers nor the High Court could instruct the Ministry of Education to bargain.

2019 to 2023 negotiations
The Attorney General contended that if the government gave into the GTU’s demands for salary negotiations for 2019 to 2023, it would amount to discrimination against other public sector workers in clear violation of Guyana’s Constitution. “It would be wrong in law and it would be unfair and inequitable,” he said. He reasoned that it would be unfair for teachers to be granted further increases, having already accepted pay hikes for those years “without any objections whatsoever”. “In law, they would be estopped by the doctrine of estoppel from making those demands and a government would enjoy a legitimate expectation that, having paid those monies out and those monies have been accepted without objection, by those to whom the monies were made, for those persons, after receiving the money, back-pedal to say that they must be paid again,” he said

Mr Nandlall claimed that teachers in Guyana were treated “better than any class of employees” during the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted that nurses, doctors and members of the police force were on duty during the pandemic and exposed themselves to the deadly virus. “Compare that to the teachers who were allowed to stay home because schools were closed and they never suffered a diminution of their wages,” he said. Told that many teachers stayed at home and taught their students virtually, Mr Nandlall said he was not under-valuing teachers’ contributions. Against that background, he questioned on what basis a government could “fairly pay” retroactive wages to that class of public sector workers “who were perhaps the least exposed when compared to the others.”

Noting that the government was compelled to take a “nationalistic” position on such matters, he restated that the National Treasury could not afford retroactive payments for 2019 to 2023 because budgets had already been possible.

The Attorney General declined to say whether the government would have to find the monies if the pay dispute goes all the way to arbitration and rules in favour of the GTU.