Costa Rica has many contradictions in the world of employment and not all of them very favorable to the employee. When a local company takes on a new employee there are many social charges and costs associated with the process, some of which are mandatory and some of which are optional.
The result is it can be very expensive to hire new workers, so hiring on a new employee is quite an undertaking. On the one hand labor law seems very enlightened in obliging companies to pay social security contributions, ensuring that all employees receive medical benefits from the Caja. However, there is a sinister side to dismissing employees, which seems unthinkable these days in Europe or the US.
A friend of mine recently lost their job after many years of service with a Costa Rican company. They were summoned by the boss fifteen minutes before the end of the day, given their letter of termination and told to clear their desk. The company wasn’t in any financial difficulty and the employee had done nothing to warrant such brutal treatment. They simply were disliked by the management, which had engaged in bullying and intimidation techniques to try and force the employee to resign.
In employment law this is known as constructive dismissal or constructive discharge. It occurs when employees resign because their employer’s behavior has become so intolerable or made life so difficult that the employee has no choice but to resign. Since the resignation was not truly voluntary, it is in effect a termination. This saves the company having to pay anything more than a month’s wages to the employee.
Constructive dismissal can take many forms, such as a change in contractual conditions:
- deliberate cuts in pay or status
- refusal of holiday,
- dramatic changes to duties, hours
- breach of contract in the form of bullying, e.g.:
- ignoring complaints,
- bullying and swearing,
- verbal abuse
- criticizing in front of subordinates,
- lack of support (e.g. forcing to do two peoples’ jobs),
- behavior which is arbitrary, capricious, inequitable, intolerable or outside good industrial practice,
- refusal to look for an alternative role due to workplace stress
All of these things happened to my friend, but they stuck it out in the job until they were fired.
In the UK an employee can take the employer to court for constructive dismissal and if successful stands to win damages of several thousand pounds in compensation from the offending employer. Unfortunately for my Costa Rican friend no such protections exist here. If bullying doesn’t work then companies can fire employees without reason. The law allows companies here to fire employees without any reason as long as they give them severance pay equivalent to one month of pay for every year of service up to a maximum of eight years. Small compensation if you have worked for many more than eight years and put up with the indignity of bullying and finally termination.
Such incidents remind other co-workers of the fragile relationship between an employee and employer here, and just how vulnerable you can be. You can understand why co-workers are reluctant to offer public support for a persecuted colleague- they stand to lose their own livelihood if they stick their neck out. This is, after all what unions were created for- to protect the weak.