Resignation of workers does not attract severance pay
Stabroek News
April 5, 2002

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Dear Editor,

When the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act was passed in the National Assembly on 7th August 1997 and given assent by President Samuel A Hinds on 10th September 1997, this welcome addition to the body of labour laws, despite its obvious shortcomings, was hailed by workers and their unions as providing them with a great deal of protection in their employment relationships. For organised workers it served to reinforce an area of protection which their unions had fought for and won from employers during many years of struggle, while for those who for a variety of reasons remained unorganized, this piece of legislation provided for them among other things some measure of protection against unfair dismissals and the imposition of unwarranted disciplinary action by their employers.

Set out in clear and unambiguous language were the circumstances under which the termination of the contract of employment by an employee can take place or by an employer for reasons of misconduct, unsatisfactory performance or redundancy. Also provided was the quantum as well as the conditions for the payment of severance or redundancy allowance to an employee on the termination of the contract. However, it was less than two years after the passing of this landmark legislation that the National Assembly on 22nd April 1999 passed the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay (Amendment) Act 1999 which was given assent on the 26th July 1999 by Prime Minister Samuel Hinds performing the duties of the President. In this amendment which gives a new definition of "severance of employment" it is only the employer who, according to the interpretation being given by the Ministry of Labour, can terminate the contract of employment under which severance or redundancy allowance can be paid to an employee.

Whether the representative body of organised workers, the Guyana Trades Union Congress, was privy to this amendment I cannot say, but as an industrial relations practitioner of many years standing I decided not to go public with my observations about it but to put some of my concerns in writing to the then Minister of Labour, the General Secretary of the Guyana Trades Union Congress and to the Executive Director of the Consultative Association of Guyanese Industry. Needless to say I was not afforded even the courtesy of a letter of acknowledgement from any of the parties.

Two years ago I was invited by the Berbice Area Council of the Guyana Trades Union Congress to be the Guest Speaker at their May Day Rally which was held in New Amsterdam. In my address I made mention of some of the deficiencies I perceived in the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act and its Amendment, pointing out that an important advantage which workers would have enjoyed under the Principal Act had been taken away by the amendment. I also alluded to the fact that no provision had been made in the Act for the termination of an employee on medical grounds with a severance allowance and that in the absence of a national retirement age the door was left open for an employer to keep an employee at work until he dies thereby avoiding any payment of a severance allowance.

When excerpts of my address were carried in one of the daily newspapers, the present Minister of Labour questioned my agenda because of the statement I had made concerning the amended Act during my address. In a brief response to the Minister's letter I deliberately avoided dealing with matters which I considered irrelevant and suggested that the Minister might wish to consider and pronounce on the question of a national retirement age which could deter some employers from keeping aged and ailing employees in employment until they die and so avoid the payment of severance allowance.

It is my considered view that it is high time the Guyana Trades Union Congress and the Ministry of Labour do something to address the plight of the unorganized workers who now stand devoid of the protection in their employment relationships.

Yours faithfully,

Norman E. Semple