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Law professor: New labor law could be unconstitutional

By on March 23, 2017

SAN JUAN – For Héctor J. Pérez Rivera, a lawyer and professor at Universidad Interamericana School of Law, part of the reforms in the Labor Transformation and Flexibility Act could conflict with several inalienable concepts contained in the Constitution of Puerto Rico.

During a conference, entitled “Labor Reform: A New Enslavement in Puerto Rico?” held in commemoration of Puerto Rico’s Day of Emancipation, the professor explained that several concepts in the labor reform pushed by the New Progressive Party (NPP) administration are already firmly established within the Constitution and some as inherent rights that cannot be renounced because they are tied to the concept of human dignity.

Pérez Rivera cited Article II of the Bill of Rights, in its Section 1, which states that “The dignity of the human being is inviolable. […] Both the laws and the system of public education shall embody these principles of essential human equality.”

He also pointed out out that Article II, Section 16, recognizes “[t]he right of every employee to choose his occupation freely and to resign therefrom is recognized, as is his right to equal pay for equal work, to a reasonable minimum salary, to protection against risks to his health or person in his work or employment, and to an ordinary-workday which shall not exceed eight hours. An employee may work in excess of this daily limit only if he is paid extra compensation as provided by law, at a rate never less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed.”

Universidad Interamericana law Prof. Héctor J. Pérez Rivera (Agustín Criollo / CB)

Universidad Interamericana law Prof. Héctor J. Pérez Rivera (Agustín Criollo / CB)

For the professor, these rights could be inalienable in nature and can therefore be challenged in the local courts for having been altered by the labor law.

“I have my doubts about the eight-hour workday. I believe the language of the Constituent Assembly and its debates were contrary to what is happening now. I even believe those rights are not renounceable. It is about a non-renounceable right, and based on that could be brought before the consideration of a court,” he said.

“The question we must ask is whether those rights mentioned in the Constitution are renounceable. That is the big question we must ask ourselves. Can we renounce extra time, the minimum wage, job security? The labor law says it is possible,” he added.

Pérez Rivera recalled that the eight-hour workday was one of the great struggles of the 19th century labor union movements, to divide the day into three sections of eight hours each. Eight hours to work, eight to rest and the remaining eight for personal time.

The attorney said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s labor law affects this concept, opening the door for employers to play with the schedules of employees at their convenience.

“I’m really worried about the eight-hour workday. I think the idea that a person can work up to 12 hours in a day without being entitled to extra time, lends itself to abuse. Obviously, one might think that Department of Labor regulations will be directed to prevent this from happening, but in my experience, the idea of allowing an employee to request hours [worked after an eight-hour shift] is not entirely healthy because it lends itself to [counting the hours as part of the next shift] be more in tune with the needs of the employer than with the needs of the employee,” he said.

Pérez Rivera expressed great concern with a possible overload of work and deprivation of long-enough rest period for workers, especially those whose positions require focused concentration.

“Those so-called eight hours of rest are reduced to six, to five, to four … that obviously affects employees directly; now, the effect that has on workers is something that someone should study…because the reason for rest is a physiological reason, not mere whim. People need to rest, particularly for certain types of work,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t rule out an increase in work-related accidents.

The expert said the legislation seeks to establish an analogy between federal labor laws and those of Puerto Rico. However, he anticipated this would result in federal labor regulations dominating the interpretation of local laws.

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