Witter On The Warpath...

... Public defender to launch investigation into colour prejudice in the job market

Amid simmering threats of a boycott, the demands by angry Jamaicans for the names of employers who have asked the Government's skills training and certification agency, HEART Trust/NTA, specifically for fair-skinned trainees to fill vacancies at their companies might be met as the Office of the Public Defender has launched an investigation and is demanding disclosure.

In an interview with The Sunday Gleaner, Public Defender Earl Witter said his office would be approaching HEART Trust/NTA in short order for the names of the entities and the identities of the proprietors who have displayed this blatant skin-tone bias.

"We will be requiring HEART to reveal the identities of these people who have been presumptuous enough in purporting to prescribe these conditions or preferences as elements of their recruitment policies," said Witter.

He added: "Not just the HEART Trust but the Ministry of Labour and any other entity, public or private, which can assist in this investigation, will be asked or required, as the case maybe, to give assistance."

Expecting full cooperation

When asked what was his office prepared to do if HEART Trust refuses to identify the employers who have asked for light-skinned trainees, Witter said he could not conceive any ground or privilege upon which a public body such as HEART Trust could rely on as the basis for refusing to disclose the names of persons and entities to his office.

"I anticipate nothing short of the fullest cooperation of the HEART Trust in our investigation, but in any event there are coercive powers to which we can resort," he said.

Already, a team has been assembled in the Office of the Public Defender to tackle the thorny issue that has stirred much public debate since The Sunday Gleaner broke the story last week. The team was scheduled to have its first meeting last Friday.

The public defender said he, too, was taken aback by the report revealing that local employers were discriminating against trainees who were dark-skinned.

"I can tell you ... as would all other right-thinking Jamaicans, our office was outraged by these allegations," said Witter.

"It should be brought home that racial discrimination in any form should never be tolerated in Jamaica."

Witter, who said the allegations "shame us all as a people", believes the situation is particularly melancholic when viewed against the backdrop of the principled position held by successive Jamaican governments on apartheid in South Africa.

"It's astonishing in the 21st century ... . The scourge of all such racial discrimination should be effectually eradicated ... and it does make a mockery of our motto, our ideal: 'Out of many, one people'," Witter said.

The public defender advanced that the employers' request for light-skinned Jamaicans might be a breach of the Constitution of Jamaica. "On the face of it, that activity is unconstitutional," he said.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, approved by Parliament earlier this year, lists among those rights and freedoms: "The right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of being male or female; race, place of origin, social class, colour, religion or political opinions."

Guaranteed rights

Witter argued that Parliament's approval of the Charter of Rights signalled a fundamental or jurisprudential sea change because it is now possible for an individual citizen to infringe upon the fundamental rights of another citizen.

"Prior to the Charter of Rights, the Government was the sole guarantor of fundamental rights, which meant that only servants or agents of Government could have infringed the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. That's no longer the case," said the public defender.

Meanwhile, the Human Resource Management Association of Jamaica (HRMAJ) said it was concerned about the claims of racial discrimination in hiring practices.

"That would be a sad compromise of professional ethics. The Jamaican HR community is committed to an ethics consensus, and hopefully no hiring officers are engaged in what the Gleaner report suggests, or succumbing to pressure to do so," said Michael Jones, president of the HRMAJ.

He added: "The Jamaican Charter of Rights prohibits discrimination, but even without the force of law, the collective conscience of the nation would have to be in a bad place for us to be even remotely comfortable or even tolerant of that."

Jones said he was confident that HEART Trust/NTA would report any such discriminatory request from an employer to the Ministry of Labour.

"It is important in all of this that, as a society, we consider whether in our music, advertising and other areas, we might not be unwittingly reinforcing these kinds of pejorative distinctions," said Jones.

Last week, Labour Minister Pearnel Charles made it clear that he was not aware of any of the cases of discrimination that had come before HEART Trust.

Charles said he would throw the book at any employer whom he finds out is engaging in the skin-tone discrimination.