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Published On: Fri, Aug 28th, 2020

Peggy-Ann Dros: “Employers have to pay 100 percent salaries”

~ No jurisprudence on ‘no work, no pay’ policy of employers during lockdown ~

PHILIPSBURG – The department of labor affairs and social services has a top-ten of non-compliant employers, department head Peggy-Ann Dros said in an interview with Keoma la Hamer that was published on Youtube. At the same time, Dros said that “not all employers are the same,” thereby indicating that there are also companies that do stick to the rules when it comes to respecting the rights of their employees.

Dros, who started working at the department seven year ago, made clear that during a disaster, like the COVID-19 crisis, the Emergency Operation Center (EOC) kicks in and that she then does what she is instructed to do by Emergency Support Function ESF-7, headed by the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Public Health, Social Affairs and Labor, Joy Arnell.

“COVID-19 has dealt a blow to St. Maarten and the region more than any natural disaster could have done,” Dros said. “In 2017, after Irma, I thought it was over for us; I felt a loss of hope. However, before COVID-19 we were maybe not yet where we wanted to be but we were definitely making a comeback. COVID is a whole other story.”

The current situation is full of uncertainty, she added: “There is so much we do not know, not only from a public health perspective but also from a legislative perspective. How do we mediate and resolve labor disputes in this environment? I am not blaming people, because it has been rough. A lot of people have been systematically suffering from even before Hurricane Irma – and this COVID-disaster just deepens the stress.”

Dros said that before Irma hit, there were between 350 and 420 names on the so-called welfare-list. Post-Irma the number increased to above 500 and the COVID-crisis has pushed the total number of people depending on welfare close to 880. “Not surprising, but still very alarming.”

Dros noted that welfare-support is not near enough to help people through this crisis. “In Aruba people get housing allowances and support with their energy bills. We don’t have that.”

Welfare-support is not the only issue: there are also close to 2,000 people who receive medical aid from the government. And then there are the labor disputes. Dros mentioned a total of 194, of which 144 were directly related to the COVID-19 crisis. “The majority of these cases have been resolved or referred to court. I do not want people to be afraid of taking their case to court; maybe this is a cultural thing, but it pays to go to court, especially if we have told people that they have a case.”

Dros mentioned one example where an unjustly treated employee was awarded close to 70,000 guilders. But not all labor dispute-cases are clear-cut, she added. “The waters are muddied because many of the COVID-related labor disputes also have to do with the SSRP (St. Maarten Stimulus and Relief Plan), a program that is executed by SZV. Many of the conditions for that plan were put in place by a third party that is not a signatory to the labor agreement. With this I am going all the way to the Netherlands, to the Kingdom Council of Ministers. And many companies have taken unilateral decisions.”

No jurisprudence

“There is also no jurisprudence that supports any interpretation of the no-work-no-pay rule during a public health crisis. Companies had to lock down based on a decision by the government and then there was no work. It is also unclear whether COVID is a force majeure, or an act of God. There is no jurisprudence that a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 can be classified as such.”

One thing is however crystal clear according to Dros: “Employers have to pay 100 percent of salaries until a labor agreement has been formally dissolved. This does not change because of a pandemic. That is extremely clear in the law.

Dros’ department gives labor disputes top priority under the current conditions. “As soon as someone reports a dispute, we will book it in. Time is of the essence.”

While employers are on the receiving end of quite some criticism, Dros points out that the civil code also stipulates the responsibilities that apply to employees. “Employees have to be reasonable. That is a very much forgotten article,” she says.

And indeed, the civil code stipulates that an employer is within his rights to dismiss an employee if he (or she) “stubbornly refuses to abide by reasonable assignments or orders.”

Dros has therefore a sound piece of advice for employees who get entangled in a labor dispute: “Make decisions for you and your family and do not follow the crowd. If you lose your job and your family goes hungry and your children cannot go to school anymore, the crowd won’t be there for you.”

Still, Dros says, there are at least some employers who play on people’s emotions by asking them to quickly sign this or that. “We want employees to be reasonable, but there has to be a middle road.”

She reminds employees of a rather harsh reality: “If an employee has been out sick consecutively for a year, the employer can legally dismiss them.”

There is another issue that bothers Dros: “We have too many people that are born in St. Maarten but do not have Dutch nationality. Born here does not guarantee you Dutch nationality, that is not how the law works. A child receives the nationality of its mother. Later on in life these children become displaced if their parents do not keep up with the formalities.”

Also, Dros says, there are too many people on the island without medical coverage. “No Dutch passport holder and no one with permanent residency has to go without medical coverage,” she emphasized.

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Force Majeure or not?
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