DER reviews worksite dispute

Cayman Islands Department of Employment Relations officials confirm they are looking into an incident at a work site along Seven Mile Beach, which led to the firing of a construction company employee.

The employee claims he and other Caymanians working at the site are victims of discrimination.

The incident occurred on Monday, 15 January. Workers showed up at a Tom Jones International Ltd. construction site along West Bay Rd. at about 7am to find the gate to the site padlocked. It’s uncertain who put the lock on the gate, but the company said it did not authorise the action.

Bobby Thomas, who’d been working there for three months, claimed several employees had decided to go on strike because Tom Jones International refused to pay them overtime if they worked more than 45 hours a week.

Company officials eventually decided to cut the padlock on the gate, and work was allowed to resume. At some point, a dispute occurred between Mr. Thomas and the general manager of the company.

An attorney representing Tom Jones International said the company did not wish to comment on the specifics of what occurred at the site.

‘A complaint has been filed with the police and it’s under investigation,’ said Waide DaCosta.

The problem, which set Mr. Thomas and the other construction workers off is a bit more complicated, though Department of Employment Relations officials admit it’s one that has caused trouble before in Cayman.

Tom Jones International employment records, which were obtained by the CaymanianCompass, show Mr. Thomas had signed a contract dated 18 October, 2006, upon taking the construction job. A section of the one-page agreement states: ‘All hours worked after forty-five (45) hours per week is voluntary, and will be worked at the regular rate of pay.’

In other words, Mr. Thomas would not be paid the standard overtime hourly rate of time-and-a-half, but would receive straight time pay for each hour he agreed to work beyond 45 hours in a week.

According to the Cayman Islands Labour Law (2001 Revision), non-management employees may agree not to be paid overtime, and work for straight time pay instead. However, that agreement must first be requested and entered into voluntarily by the worker; and it must then be approved by a Labour Tribunal.

The law also allows companies to refuse overtime pay to all workers, but those companies cannot make employees work more than 45 hours in a week.

Mr. Thomas said he was required to sign the agreement on 18 October as a condition of his employment. ‘I wouldn’t have gotten the job. I was forced to sign it.

‘(Expatriates) are forced to work, and they can’t complain,’ Mr. Thomas said. ‘If they complain, they’ve lost their job and they’ve got to go.’

Another site worker, Sam Ritch, said the company’s refusal to pay overtime was making things difficult for the employees.

‘There’s no time-and-a-half. Going home to our families at 400 dollars (a week), and the cost of living here in Cayman is sky-high. How (do they) expect us to live?’

Mr. Ritch said he believes most Caymanians won’t work under those circumstances. He also confirmed he was required to sign a contract similar to Mr. Thomas’s before beginning work at the site.

Department of Employment Relations Deputy Director Philip Scott said this particular case was being looked into. He also noted claims about companies favouring certain workers have been made in the past.

‘The Department does recognise that where there are employees willing to work at straight pay for overtime work, this can effectively weaken or undermine the bargaining power of those who would rather stick to their entitlement to be paid overtime rates,’ Mr. Scott wrote in an e-mail to the CaymanianCompass.

Mr. DaCosta said he had helped the company revise its initial contract agreements, which were then redistributed to employees sometime this month. He said the company had agreed to provide payment for extra hours worked where appropriate and that Mr. Thomas was given his termination pay on 15 January; a statement that Mr. Thomas disputes.

Mr. DaCosta said the initial contracts were simply an overview of company policy in regard to overtime.

‘That’s just a notification for them that that’s the policy. If they didn’t want to work there, they didn’t have to sign it. The company policy is…not to offer overtime and that’s it.’

He said any employees who wanted to work extra hours would have to go before the Labour Tribunal to have their requests approved.

‘It’s unfortunate that these guys decided to deal with it in this fashion,’ Mr. DaCosta said. ‘They should have dealt with it internally, or through the mediation services offered by the Department of Employment Relations.’