By Dr Kumar Mahabir
Due process was not followed by the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) in dismissing about 70 lecturers on May 11, 2018. On that day, I was among eleven lectures who were wrongly and arbitrarily fired from the Centre for Education Programmes (CEP) as part of the University’s stated “restructuring exercise.”
Due process is a fundamental principle of fairness which should be followed before dismissing workers, including instructors, teachers, lecturers and professors. It is a universal procedure which must be afforded to each individual – in an orderly sequence of steps – to avoid prejudicial or unequal treatment culminating in court action against a company, organisation or institution.
The steps of this process include the following: (i) consultation with the affected employee, (ii) prior notice of dismissal, (iii) presentation of evidence by the employer, (iv) opportunity for the employee to respond, (v) representation of the employee by an attorney, (vi) notice of dismissal, (vii) the right to appeal, and (viii) the right to judicial review.
On May 24th 2018, we dismissed lecturers made yet another attempt to meet UTT President Sarim Al-Zubaidy at the Valsayn campus for our duly-constituted right to a hearing and appeal. This time we were accompanied by a fellow dismissed lecturer from another campus, Dr Andrea Kanneh. Again Al-Zubaidy refused to call us inside before or after his address to the lecturers in the Valsayn campus auditorium.
All our requests for a hearing and an appeal of our dismissal were broadcasted in the national newspapers, television channels and radio stations. No response came either from the Minister of Education, Anthony Garcia, or the Minister of State in the Ministry of Education, Lovell Francis, or even Prime Minister Keith Rowley himself.
Court Cases Involving Non-hearing
The UTT failed to follow due process by denying us a hearing before a duly constituted Faculty Committee or Faculty Senate. Our constitutional right to a hearing before being dismissed was denied. Had the meeting taken place, we would have challenged the unfair, unreasonable, contradictory and arbitrary criterion that was used by CEP Head, Dr Judy Rocke, to terminate our employment.
The judgement on the 5th April 2011 in the case involving the National Workers’ Union vs North Central Regional Health Authority is significant because it sets a precedent for us dismissed lecturers at the UTT. The dismissed worker won his case because his employer did not obey the following proper procedures: (i) There was no hearing, (ii) The worker was also not advised of any complaints against him, and (iii) He was not given any opportunity to defend himself. In his findings, the Judge considered that worker’s dismissal to be “inappropriate and unfair.”
In similar cases, Judges have granted victory to the claimants. The denial of the right to be heard and the denial of an appeal to dismissed workers were breaches of due process. One judge wrote that these denials “did not meet the minimum requirements of natural justice and that they were not conducted in accordance with the principles of good industrial relations.” Another court ruled that these denials to workers “were harsh, oppressive and contrary to good industrial relations practice.” What makes the case worse for the UTT is that it is a “public authority” funded by tax-payers and should have set an example for private sector employers.
No Individual Reason/s, Evidence or Charges Presented
The UTT violated the significant industrial relations principle of “procedural due process” which must be afforded to each employee before dismissal in any place of employment. The UTT failed to provide an individual written reason or reasons for my (our) dismissal. All the termination letters given to us on May 11, 2018 stated that we were sacked because we were “surplus” lecturers and have become “redundant” in the university’s “restructuring exercise.” But UTT provided no evidence to support these claims.
The “burden of proof” rests with the UTT to provide and explain the evidence that I was a “surplus” lecturer. How could I be when I had four (4) more weeks to complete teaching the course CIED 4001: Contemporary Issues in Education? And most of my colleagues were on vacation??!! I have been teaching several courses during my 10 continuous years of service to the university with an average of 30 students in each class. I taught courses in both the Primary and Secondary School specialisations. Each semester (Terms 1 and 2), I taught an average of five (5) or more classes.
The “restructuring exercise” justification by UTT suggested that the UTT was suffering from imminent financial crisis or financial exigency. However, the UTT never provided written evidence to us, individually or collectively, that it was experiencing financial hardship to the extent that our salaries and benefits were overbearing expenses.
Dr Mahabir taught several courses at UTT including Written Communication.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.