The Industrial Relations Courtâ€™s lack of adequate funding and human resources has led to a backlog of unresolved cases, denying people justice in the process. Is there an end in sight to these challenges?
Rhodrick Selemani, 34, was fired from his job as a security guard in 2009. Since then, he has not seen justice prevail despite taking the issue to the Industrial Relations Court (IRC) in Blantyre for legal redress.
According to Selemani, he has travelled 21 times from Siya Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Likoswe, Chiradzulu to the IRC to check if a date has been set for hearing of his case.. However, the date is not known up to now.
“My name does not appear on the notice board each time I go there. For how long will I be spending money on transport just to follow up on the issue,” wonders Selemani.
He claims he was fired for failing to report for work after sustaining injuries in the course of his duties on September 20 2009. He says he was struggling with armed robbers who wanted to steal building equipment at his workplace (name withheld) in Limbe.
A father of four children, Selemani says: “I stayed for three months receiving treatment at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH), but my employers terminated my job without written notice and pay. In fact, this was the second time to be treated in such a manner by the same employer.”
Although, doctors at QECH advised him to rest until the arm healed, his employers terminated his job without giving reasons.
“I fail to support my family and pay school fees for my daughter who is in secondary school. I protested the dismissal to reclaim my job, but to no avail; hence, my lodging a complaint to IRC,” he says.
Selemaniâ€™s case is one of the numerous cases being reported to the court for legal help, but are not duly processed due to inadequate capacity at the court.
Currently, there are close to 200 cases being reported to the IRC offices on a monthly basis. Most of the complaints are about unfair dismissal, overtime and leave payment claims, among others.
The IRC Annual Report of 2000 indicates that the department has a mandate under the Constitution, Labour Relations Act, 1996 and Employment Act, 2000 to hear and determine labour and employment disputes such as that of Selemani and others.
A look at the case list at the IRC Blantyre office put to light that the majority of workers in tea and tobacco estates, sugar plantations, security companies, domestic staff and building construction workers, among others, are too poor to commute to the nearest office to lodge complaints and follow-up on their cases.
This is why IRC has opened 16 registries between 1999 and now for it to be responsible for equal justice that is necessary for enhancing industrial peace, accelerated economic growth and social justice.
But still, the disposal rate of cases is slow due to lack of adequate judicial officers to tackle the increase in case load. This makes it impossible for the IRCs to meet its requirement that any matter presented to it should be resolved within 40 days, and on a first come first served basis.
The labour force in Malawi stands at 4.5 million, yet IRC has less than 10 employees countrywide. This figure is far below the more than a thousand cases being lodged annually.
Deputy executive director of the Employers Consultative Association of Malawi (Ecam), Beyani Munthali, says Parliament needs to revisit the Labour Act by taking recommendations from the social partners to ensure that there is an increase in the number of panellists that sit in the IRC.
“Since Ecam is a partner to the IRC, you will note that the Act says the IRC judge must sit with an employee and an employer panellist, hence the need to change that,” he observes.
IRC chairperson Rachael Sikwese says the International Labour Organisation (ILO) uses IRC decisions to assess whether Malawi is complying with minimum labour standards.
She, however, says poor funding and lack of adequate personnel is affecting its operations as they are not able to travel in all their 18 registries to provide judgement.
“For instance, for the past eight years the IRC budget has been an average of K10 million (less than four percent of total Judiciary budget) for its operations for a whole year for the whole the country. This amounts to around K2.5 million per region,” says Sikwese.
The 2012/2013 funding is pegged at K18 million, a figure that is not enough again to last the whole next financial year in providing legal redress to those fired or those who want to claim compensation from their employers.
“There is need for courts to operate in districts, but with poor funding, we may not be able to visit the courts. Even in the registries, we need funding for stationery and other issues. With such a budget, we will be unable to operate due to insufficient funds,” said Jack Nrivia, an official at the IRC in Blantyre.
Unless government considers improving funding to the Industrial Relations Court of Malawi, the likes of Selemani will not see justice prevail at a fast rate.
â€”IRC was established in the 1995 Constitution
â€”Its budget hovers around K10 million except for this yearâ€™s K18 million.
â€”ILO used IRC to assess whether Lilongwe is complying with labour standards
â€”IRC has 18 registries spread nationwide since 1999.
â€”Unfair dismissals and claims top the list in IRC.