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Companies warned over repatriation flight costs

A clampdown on unscrupulous employers who fail to foot the bill for overseas workers who returned home was signalled by the labour minister at the weekend.

Jason Hayward reminded company owners that they were obliged to pay for tickets home for people from overseas who left their jobs on the island — and warned he would consider changes to legislation to force employers who found ways to dodge their responsibilities.

Mr Hayward said on Friday the requirement was “enshrined in the Bermuda Immigration and Protection Act and the work-permit policy”.

He added it was “most unfortunate” that businesses might dodge their responsibilities.

Mr Hayward warned: “If this is the case, I can only assume that businesses are using the offer of employment, and employees not knowing their rights, to enter into a contract that is in favour of the employer and circumvents the Act and work-permit policy.”

Mr Hayward continued: “If it is found that employers commonly abuse the law to disadvantage workers, consideration will be given to amend the legislation and policy.

“As per the Act and policy in place, the Government fully expects employers to be responsible for covering the costs of repatriation.”

He highlighted that “unless there is a written, mutual agreement stating otherwise, it is the employer's responsibility to repatriate guest workers to their place of origin”.

Mr Hayward said: “Furthermore, if a work-permit holder has changed employers, it is the current employer's responsibility to repatriate their workers.”

He was speaking after Portuguese and Filipino workers left the island due to the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic over the last few weeks.

A ministry spokesman said later that Mr Hayward appreciated the hardship facing employers.

Mr Hayward said at the regular Covid-19 update last Thursday that some businesses hit by the economic downturn would shed jobs.

The problem was spotlighted last Friday by the Filipino Association of Bermuda, as jobless expatriate workers from that country flew home because they had lost their jobs.

The group said “quite a number” of employers in the hospitality sector had asked new staff to sign an agreement, before they arrived in Bermuda, that the cost of their repatriation would be deducted from their salaries.

Keith Jensen, the head of the Bermuda Employers' Council, pointed out that legislation at present permitted businesses to make their own agreements with staff.

Mr Jensen added: “Consequently, if the employer and employee agree in writing to a weekly or other deduction from wages for repatriation costs, it is within the work-permit policy and not circumventing the work-permit policy.

“The impact of the pandemic and the impact of public health decisions has caused significant disruption of the economy, with so many employees and employers adversely affected at the same time.

“The private sector had to deal with the rapid decline in business, with cashflow plummeting and its aftermath ­— the layoffs, wage reductions, decreased hours of work and financial survival. Nevertheless, employers have to meet their obligations for repatriation in accordance with the work-permit policy.”

Stephen Todd, chief executive of the Bermuda Hotel Association, said only “a small percentage” of hotels had the agreements in place.

Mr Todd defended the manoeuvre “a means of assisting their work-permit holder colleagues with this future expense”.

He added: “It is not in the form of a separate agreement and is, in fact, an integral part of the employment contract which is fully discussed and explained to the employee, during their interview and subsequent signing of the contract.

“Additionally, the hotels provide direct assistance to the employees in the booking of their return airline flights to their home countries and all excess funds that are not earmarked for the ticket cost are returned to the employee, by the hotel, without penalty.”

Mr Todd said extra help was given to staff if their savings did not cover the cost of their airline ticket home.

He added: “As this is in keeping with the employment contract, there is no circumventing of the law and in fact provides the required assistance to workpermit holders, especially those who are subject to seasonal employment, when they may not be able to work their full work schedule due to reduced hotel guest occupancy levels.”

Mr Todd said: “We trust that this fully explains the process and clarifies any misunderstanding, as there is no intention on the part of the employer to subject those guest workers employed in Bermuda on a work permit to any unethical practices, on the part of their employer, as it specifically relates to the hotel industry.”

Jason Hayward, the Minister of Labour (File photograph)

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Published August 10, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated August 10, 2020 at 9:09 am)

Companies warned over repatriation flight costs

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