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House unites on Occupational Safety/Health Bill

House unites on Occupational Safety/Health Bill

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The Occupational Safety and Health Act 2017 was passed in Parliament on Tuesday.

And, Minister of Labour Camillo Gonsalves, who piloted the Bill through Parliament, is of the view that the process to have the Act formulated worked well.

“We have been able to find what I think to be a happy middle ground between and among the competing interests…,” Gonsalves told Parliament on Tuesday, minutes before the Bill was passed into law.

Gonsalves said members of the Select Committee who had the responsibility of making sure the Bill covered all the facets of occupational safety and health came up with an “amazing” deal.

He said at times, members of the Select Committee wanted to be pro-employer or pro-employee, pro-youth or pro-pregnant women and at times some wanted to strike out certain provisions; but it worked out well in the long run.

“I think that the push and pull and the cut and thrust of the process has landed us; I can’t say it is perfect; it is the process of a negotiation and a committee process, but I think it has landed us at a happy medium.

“I think that the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines can be as proud as I am, not only of the legislative process that birthed this particular Bill, but of its impact and of the letter and spirit of the Bill itself,” he added.

Gonsalves said there may be one or two hiccups in the implementation of the Act, but he is urging persons to use common sense and approach the Act in a good-natured manner.

He said that the Act is very important, and persons must not see it as something that was implemented to punish or victimize, and if an employee believes he is in a dangerous situation and withdraws his/her service, then there must not be reprisal if there is a determination that the employee acted in good faith.

The Act speaks of a judicial element, where there are hearing officers and inspectors.

The Act, designed to protect workers, touches on areas like refusing to work around cancer causing agents like wood, dust and asbestos. It also addresses issues like noise, extreme temperature (sun stroke and frostbite), working around chemicals and other dangerous materials.  

Gonsalves said while areas like frostbite may sound alien to SVG, he knows of people who work in cold rooms and are not provided with the proper gear and on occasions get sick.

He also cited a case in which a worker was asked to go into sewage pits that partly submerged him in waste, after which he would jump into the sea to clean himself off. He said the man did it because he did not want to lose his job.

Gonsalves beseeched the business and commercial community not to resist the provisions of the Act, but to demonstrate leadership. He said through the advisory committee and their informational and promotional role, best practices will be held up as examples.

He said that if leadership is demonstrated, the transition to full compliance with occupational health and safety legislation and best practices in the workplace will be streamlined and happen very effectively.

As it relates to SVG, the Minister said we are far from late as it relates to the passage of the Act.

“…As the Minister with responsibility for labour in a government and a political organization that has labour as its middle name, it is my profound honour that on my watch that the minimum wages of Vincentians were increased and that this Bill has come to the Parliament of this country for passage,” said Gonsalves.

The Bill received the full support of the Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) and Leader of the Opposition Dr Godwin Friday said in Parliament on Tuesday that the Bill is very important.

He said while there are existing laws on the books that protect employees, this legislation updates an important aspect of our labour practices.  

“I certainly will not create any strawmen here to try to make an argument for political points,” said Friday, who added that the members of the NDP participated fully on the Select Committee and made their contribution and reported to those who could not attend.

“What is at the core of the Bill is the intention to improve and make safer the work environment,” said the Opposition Leader, who added that we all can recall instances where persons were injured and killed in the workplace.

He noted that nobody wants to go to work and put himself or herself in danger, so that is the value of having a legislative and administrative framework to enforce basic standards that everyone must comply with.(LC)