Unions question Industrial Court’s independence as new president sworn in

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

New president of the Industrial Court Heather Seale, left, receives her instrument of appointment from President Christine Kangaloo at President’s House on December 13. – Photo courtesy Office of the President

WEDNESDAY’S appointment of Heather Seale as the new Industrial Court President is raising conflict-of-interest concerns.

President Christine Kangaloo’s husband is now being brought into the fray amidst demands for clarity on the appointment and disappointment of Industrial Court members.

The Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM) sent out a statement shortly after the President swore in Seale on Wednesday.

“The unprecedented way this appointment has been made now raises serious concerns over the perception of the independence of the Industrial Court.”

JTUM questioned Seale’s appointment as the replacement for former Industrial Court president Deborah Thomas-Felix. It said it noted with concern that Kangaloo’s husband Kerwyn Garcia “regularly appears before the Industrial Court on behalf of employers, including state enterprises such as WASA, Caribbean Airlines Ltd and the National Insurance Board (NIB).”

The umbrella trade union body, an amalgamation of JTUM, NATUC and FITUN, went to President’s House on Tuesday to present a letter for her to reconsider the decision not to renew Thomas-Felix’s contract and other matters.

“It is clear the President has not taken into consideration critical issues raised in the letter of the three federations delivered yesterday.”

Even as the unions seek clarity from the Chief Justice as to why Thomas-Felix’s contract was not renewed and why she was informed two days before the expiry date, controversial cases she presided over, such as the four per cent wage offer to public servants, are being proffered for her departure after 12 years.

JTUM, which is headed by Ancel Roget, said there is a controversial matter before the Industrial Court, in which the Public Services Association (PSA) is seeking to enforce collective agreements regarding NIB’s agreement to increase  staff salaries by nine per cent.

“The Attorney General regarded the matter as being so important that he intervened in the dispute, and pursuant to that intervention, the Minister of Finance has contended that he was unaware that NIB was going to agree to salary increases of nine per cent and does not agree to such an increase.”

The union said Garcia represents the NIB in that matter, and Thomas-Felix chaired the panel hearing the dispute. Court documents list Garcia as one of the attorneys for the NIB.

JTUM wants a review of the Industrial Relations Act and reiterated its call for the President to state publicly why the decision was made not to renew Thomas-Felix’s contract.

It said it will use the Freedom of Information Act to get answers from Chief Justice Ivor Archie to find out whether he the President consulted him on the appointment of Seale, when and where, along with a copy of his response.

The Office of the President said after consultation with the CJ as required by section 4 (3) (a) (ii) of the Industrial Relations Act, Seale was appointed president of the court.

Archie witnessed Seale receiving her instrument of appointment during a ceremony attended by her husband Stephen Seale and son Hasan Seale.

Seale has been a member of the Industrial Court for almost 20 years. She has also held positions as the Registrar of the Tax Appeal Board and state counsel at the Ministry of Finance.

Kangaloo also thanked Thomas-Felix for her dedicated service, saying she was instrumental in helping to build capacity at the Industrial Court, including a pool of talented members from which it has been possible to select a new president.