Trade Union Congress ‘Dysfunctional’, Court Claims

One of the strongest weapons the public has against corruption is organised labour. It is the hard graft of PNG’s workers that keeps the wheels of commerce and industry turning. A unionised workforce, with a strong democratic culture at the rank-and-file level, with principled leadership, could harness the power of labour to challenge corrupt officials in the workplace, and to protect courageous whistleblowers.

Recent intrigues within the Papua New Guinea Trade Union Congress (PNGTUC), however, do not bode well for organised labour in PNG.

The PNGTUC’s main objective is to “establish and maintain a powerful and effective national organisation composed of free and democratic trade unions which shall be independent of any external contamination and pledged to promote the interests of all workers in Papua New Guinea and in particular, those eligible for membership of its affiliated organisations whilst upholding and enhancing the dignity of labour”.

According to a recent National Court decision, in 2015 the PNGTUC Revitalization Committee was established, under the Chairmanship of Ugwalubu Mowana. Mowana is the President of the Papua New Guinea Teacher’s Association.

It was set up, so the committee members argued, in order to counter union mismanagement.

Those spearheading the special committee argued “PNGTUC has had no Executive Council and Management Board since 2011 to convene a Delegates Conference pursuant to Rule 15(1) and (2) of the Constitution and Rules of the PNGTUC and there has been a lack of accountability and transparency as a result”.

The Special Committee proceeded on 8 April 2016 to oust the previous leadership at a meeting held in Diowai Conference Centre. New office bearers were inducted, including Mowana as President of the PNGTUC. Following this meeting – that was subsequently deemed ultra vires by the Courts – the new leadership made changes to the administration, management and operations of the PNGTUC.

Justice David observes, “they have been continuously frustrated [in this respect] by John Paska, the alleged incumbent General Secretary of the PNGTUC”.

Paska and the PNGTUC initiated legal proceedings on 28 April 2016, in order to challenge the Special Committee’s formation, and subsequent decisions.

In the decision Justice David cast a damning light on the affairs of PNGTUC, observing:

It is abundantly clear that the PNGTUC the mother or umbrella organization of the trade union movement in Papua New Guinea has become dysfunctional as tenures of all office bearers have come to an end. No Delegates Conferences have been held since 2011 it seems so the terms of office bearers elected in 2011 expired in 2013. They no longer have the mandate they were given at the last Delegates Conference in 2011 to hold onto those positions. There is no cure for extension of their tenures under the Constitution and Rules of the PNGTUC except by following the process of electing office bearers thereunder.

Justice David also raised queries over John Paska the incumbent General Secretary:

John Paska, the purported incumbent General Secretary executed a contract of employment with the PNGTUC on 21 October 2010 for a term of four years commencing on 21 October 2010 which expired on 21 October 2014 … The contract has accorded continuity of employment of John Paska as General Secretary because after its expiry, if a new contract were not signed, he was deemed to be re-engaged as General Secretary until a new contract was signed or until the next biennial congress was held whichever occurred first. No new contract of employment has been executed between John Paska and the PNGTUC. A biennial congress was scheduled to be convened from 30 to 31 July 2016 in Port Moresby in consultation with the Industrial Registrar: see annexures “D” to “F” of John Paska’s first affidavit. There is no evidence before me to suggest if that biennial congress were ever held or not. Given that, an interesting issue arises as to whether a contract of employment of a General Secretary can be longer than the term held by the General Secretary as an office bearer which is limited to the period of his appointment starting from the date of his election to the next biennial Delegates Conference. This issue is not before me so does not require determination now.

The Judge nevertheless concluded that the decision to establish the special committee, and oust the old leadership, did not have a legal mandate and thus could not be upheld.

Justice David did, however, take the rare step though of advising union members on steps that could be taken to rectify the lamentable situation within the PNGTUC, using Section 50 of the Industrial Organizations Act.

As the nation’s political elite prove incapable of tackling corruption, lets hope the labour movement can get its act together and invigorate its umbrella organisations, and members.