Employees are the heart of any organisation. It is said that the employees make or break businesses. The famous text book definition of an employee is anyone who has agreed to be employed, under a contract of service, to work for some form of payment.
This can include wages, salary, commission and piece rates.
Yet, in practice, employees play a much more important role within the organisation by building a strong and closer relationship with the employers. When employers start a business (or open a branch of an existing business), they require employees to produce, administer, organise, publicise, sell, transport, maintain, repair, etc.
Thus, employees are the ones who are the operators of the business. They are the Red Indians who fight the battle. If this were not so, you would find too many Red Indian chiefs and no Red Indians to fight the battle.
Businesses rely on their employees to keep the company going. Some businesses are great at taking care of their staff, but others don’t always follow the rules. That is why the Government has introduced workplace laws, rules and regulations to protect employees from problems they might face in the workplace, such as discrimination, sexual harassment, pay issues and even termination. Companies are required by law to protect their employees from such unfair practices and when they don’t, employees have the right to demand for their rights and they can even sue their employers.
Treating employees with respect and fairness is essential for two reasons. First, it establishes a company’s reputation for fairness and impartiality which is carefully scrutinised by individuals both within and outside the organisation. This is a vital factor in keeping and attracting desirable employees. The second but an equally important reason is that identifying and safeguarding employee rights reduces the possibility of the company becoming entangled in charges of discrimination, lengthy litigation and costly settlements.
What are employee rights?
It is important to know what these rights and obligations are to avoid a breach pertaining to these. Employers and employees have mutual obligations towards each other, obligations that are set out in the terms of their employment contracts.
All employees have basic rights in the workplace such as the right to eat, right to be safe, right to get paid for the work they perform, right to join trade unions, to get together – including the right to privacy, fair compensation and freedom from discrimination, right to seek access to justice.
Even a job applicant has certain rights even prior to being hired as an employee. Those rights include the right to be free from discrimination based on age, gender, race, national origin or religion during the hiring process. For instance, a prospective employer may not ask certain family-related questions or whether the applicant is pregnant or not during the hiring process.
These rights are violated blatantly during the interview process by several companies. As an example, interviewers ask questions, especially from lady applicants, such as, “Do you plan to get married within the next two years?” or “Do you plan to have a baby in the next couple of years?” In case the applicant is married, “Are you expecting a baby?” or to the point of vulgarity such as “Are you living with your husband?”
In most countries, especially in Western countries, employees have a right to privacy in the workplace. This right to privacy applies to the employee’s personal possessions, including handbags or briefcases, storage lockers accessible only by the employee, and private mail addressed only to employee. Employees may also have a right to privacy in their telephone conversations or voicemail messages. However, employees have very limited rights to privacy in their e-mail messages and internet usage while using the employer’s computer system.
Because of the complexity of employment relationships and the wide variety of situations that can arise, employment law involves legal issues as disrespect for diversity such as discrimination, wrongful termination, wages and taxation, and workplace safety.
In is noted that most of the complaints and issues regarding employee rights violations are reported from manufacturing companies established in industrial zones. Employers tend to misuse and exploit these workers, knowing that they will not raise their voices against the management as most of them come from very poor families in rural areas.
Why should they be aware of their rights?
Accepting a position with a company before taking the time to understand where you stand can be disastrous. The majority of employers are being accused for keeping employee rights a secret. They are known for talking only about their requirements and matching the best talent for their company, but less known for explaining the benefits and rights that employees can enjoy.
Educating yourself before, during and after an employment experience will be the wisest career decision you will ever make. This will benefit both the management and the workers as it will help employees to understand their entitlements, which will give them a fair idea of their rights. When management communicates these to their employees, they have an obligation to create an environment where they respect those rights. Thus, there is mutual respect between the both parties for their rights and obligations, which will have a huge impact on the productivity of the organisation.
Sri Lanka has ratified ILO Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise and Convention No. 98 on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining. Workers in Sri Lanka generally enjoy rights of speech, expression, and assembly. Sri Lanka’s constitution guarantees “freedom to form and join a trade union.” The law does not hinder peaceful activity by trade unionists such as holding meetings; publishing and distributing newspapers, flyers, and other materials; mounting marches and demonstrations; and picketing. Court decisions have upheld these rights.
The constitution also has accepted the right to form and join trade unions and the public authorities did not systematically interfere with workers’ exercise of this right. Legislation however, did not provide the key element of protection of the right to organise by addressing victimisation by private employers.
Possible and common ways of violating employee rights...
Sexual harassment, retaliation, racial discrimination, age discrimination, disability discrimination and harassment, pregnancy discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, denial of medical leave, national origin discrimination and religious discrimination can all be categorised as violations.
Though racial discrimination and age discrimination is not so common in Sri Lanka, unfortunately there are instances where pregnancy discrimination is practiced. It is sad that Sri Lankan law does not prohibit gender discrimination in the private sector and some industries such as the tea sector still pay different wage rates to men and women doing the same job. While the law prohibits child labour and forced labour, both are widespread in practice.
Harassment is another type of violation of employee rights. It is a crime. If proven, depending on the severity and frequency of the conduct and the harasser’s prior criminal record, harassment can be punishable. Harassment is any behaviour or words that are towards you that make you feel distressed. Harassment seems to be an ongoing problem within our everyday lives, especially when you’re at work.
Not only these, not providing a proper induction, appointment letter on time and even a job description is a way of violating employee rights. If the employer blocks the career growth of an employee purposely, that will also violate his/her rights as an employee. Every employee has a right to work in a proper and safe working environment.
(The writer is the Managing Director and CEO, McQuire Rens Group of Companies. He has held regional responsibilities of two multinational companies of which one was a Fortune 500 company. He carries out consultancy assignments and management training in Dubai, India, Maldives, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. He is a much sought-after business consultant and corporate management trainer in Sri Lanka.)