A packed house of over 120 concerned employers turned up yesterday to express their concerns about the Labour (Work Permits) Act. The public consultation was held at the Ramada Resort. It was sponsored by the Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) and co-presented with the Commissioner of Labour.
The amendments, which were passed without prior consultation and gazetted earlier this year, have caused widespread dismay, with employers warning of an investor exodus if the measures remain in place.
Internal Affairs Minister Andrew Napuat was invited to the meeting, but chose not to attend. In his place he sent the Labour Commissioner and the department's legal counsel.
A speech delivered by the Commissioner but written by the Ministry showed no indication of compromise, nor did it recognise the legitimacy of the public's concerns.
The current stand taken by the ministry is that no changes will be made for at least 12 months. There was, however, a recognition that 'nothing is perfect' and the possibility of a review at the end of a year was raised. No firm commitment was made, but the Commissioner repeatedly referred to this possible review as the next opportunity to revise the Act.
The speech was met with widespread murmuring by the crowd, who were clearly not happy with its language.
Prior to the meeting, one attendee told the Daily Post that this law is 'the worst ever' in the history of the republic. While obviously an exaggeration, the statement nonetheless provided an indication of the depth of concern shared by most employers.
For its part, the VCCI shared eight fundamental concerns with the Act. The reservations mostly referred to implementation issues that the Chamber felt would impede a business owner's ability to run their business.
What happens to a work permit holder if a Ni Vanuatu changes jobs or leaves their employer? they asked.
What happens if the training requires more than four years?
What information about job applicants will employers be required to share with the Labour Department?
The fear is that if these amendments are allowed to stand, Ni Vanuatu and expatriate workers alike will suffer. The Chamber outlined its concern that the Act as amended would cause a reduction in foreign investment. They encouraged government to better implement its own existing labour laws and regulations before enacting new ones.
One matter of immediate concern was when work permits would begin reaching their four-year limit. The Labour Commissioner received applause when she announced that the view of the department was that the four years would be counted from the date the law itself came into force.
This was challenged however by past VCCI president Thomas Bayer, who asked her to reconcile her view with the language of the Act, which calculates the date from when the work permit was issued.
The Labour Commissioner also recognised that four years training would be insufficient in many cases.
Technical questions about when and how successive work permits could be issued to the same person left the Labour representatives on the back foot, raising questions about how closely involved senior departmental staff were with the amendment process.
The Commissioner suggested that exemptions could be made in extraordinary circumstances, but it's not clear how the Act would allow that.
Numerous other questions showed up problems with the existing Act as well as with the amendments.
VCCI President Shaun Gilchrist told the Daily Post that he was happy with the turn-out, saying that it showed how widespread the concerns over the Act are. While he expressed regret that the Minister chose not to attend, he nonetheless commended the Commissioner of Labour on her attendance, and her assistance in dealing with the many detailed technical questions that arose.