Poor funding and lack of panellists have paralysed the Industrial Relations Court (IRC), resulting in a backlog of over 1 500 cases in the Central Region alone.
While the accumulated cases may mean that more Malawians are becoming knowledgeable about their employment contract rights, the case backlog also shows how hard it is for, say, an unlawfully dismissed worker to seek timely redress.
Speaking in an interview last Wednesday, Judiciary spokesperson Mlenga Mvula said the problem, which is in all the IRC registries in the country’s three administrative regions, does not lie with the court or the Judiciary, but with government.
He said a regional IRC runs on a budget of K300 000 (US$659) per month to cater for operations as well as everything.
The money is not enough considering that the number of cases registered comes from all the districts in a region, according to Mvula.
He said there are supposed to be five employees’ panellists and three employers’ panellists per region, but because of low perks they get per sitting, the employers’ panellists are usually not available.
He said: “While all the eight panellists are not available most of the time, employers’ panellists are very difficult to maintain because the amount of money [honoraria] they are given per sitting is just peanuts compared to what they make when they are in their respective jobs.
“The Judiciary thinks there is need to increase the K2 000 allowance these panellists are given per sitting if we are to deal with cases urgently instead of depriving people of their right to justice.”
One of the affected individuals seeking justice at the Southern Region IRC, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his case started in 2010 and every time a date is set for hearing at the IRC in Blantyre, he, together with his colleagues, is always told their panellists are not available.
He appealed to government to consider increasing the number of panellists to speed up delivery of justice at the IRC because, as it is now, complainants with pending cases such as him are unable to send their children to school and take care of their families.
Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) executive director Timothy Mtambo expressed concern about the development and called on authorities to think about the victims who are being denied justice.
“This is a worrying situation considering that not so long ago courts were closed due to the strike. We call upon authorities to quickly look into the matter because this is another issue with potential to frustrate access to justice processes further,” he said.
Mtambo said it was the responsibility of government to intervene on the matter so that victims do not continue to suffer because their cases are not being resolved.
Employers’ panellists are selected by Employers Consultative Association of Malawi (Ecam) while employees’ panelists are selected by Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU).
The Judiciary’s role is to swear them in and gazette their names to make them eligible for the job.
The delayed labour justice has been a problem for a long time.
In 2012, aggrieved workers complained to the then Minister of Labour about delayed justice at the IRC.
As of November 2012, the IRC had a national backlog of 2 400 cases. The backlog was said to be for the period 1999 to September 2012, during which the court registered 6 392 cases and concluded 3 912.