Social Partnership tried, tested and proven, says Arthur
It has become the proverbial whipping boy of late for trade unionists and others who are either anxious to see the back of it, or strongly believe it is in need of review.
However, former Prime Minister Owen Arthur has stoutly defended the Barbados Social Partnership arrangement, saying much of the stability and progress achieved by the island over the past two decades had been due “in some quite substantial measure” to the workings of it.
Addressing a conference in Dutch St Maarten yesterday, Arthur also hailed the Social Partnership, which brings together the state, the labour movement and the private sector under one umbrella, as “the forum for decision making on the critical issues facing the country”.
“By this process, innovative and workable solutions were found to many difficult issues whose resolution would have been highly contentious if pursued on a unilateral basis by the state,” said Arthur in his keynote address at the second annual symposium of the Social Economic Council held at the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort and Casino.
He went on to cite, as reference, the reform of Barbados’ social security system, which he said would have faced “grave challenges” to its viability by 2030 had it been left unaddressed.
“In response to this challenge, a special task force, subscribed to by all stakeholders, was established and its far reaching recommendations were implemented without the unproductive rancour that attends, for example, the attempts to reform the social security system in the United States.
“Similarly, Barbados was able to delink from the British Privy Council and to accept the Caribbean Court of Justice as its highest Court of Appeal because there was a national consensus that this is the desirable course of action for the nation,” Arthur stated.
He noted that other Caribbean countries which helped to fund the CCJ’s operations were unable to subject themselves to its jurisdiction because the court was a highly divisive issue in their national affairs.
“By contrast, the more recent experience in Barbados reflects the other side of the ledger, and illustrates the dangers which will confront the development of small states when the effort is not made to build a consensus to support the carrying out of the difficult, but necessary things, required to advance the fortunes of the society at large.”
His comments come against the backdrop of recent criticisms of the Social Partnership.
Among those publicly voicing their concerns was the general secretary of the National Union of Public Workers, Dennis Clarke, who went as far as to state that “the Social Partnership was almost irrelevant at this juncture in the economic lives of Barbadians”.
Back in March, Clarke also told the NUPW’s 70th annual general conference at the union’s Dalkeith headquarters he was concerned that the grouping had seemingly become a “forum to see who could out-talk whom and sound the prettiest, while begging for more handouts from Government” and that it had “no ideas, no direction for national development that would help the poor”.
Since then, Robert Bobby Morris, formerly of the Barbados Workers’ Union, and Lionel Weekes, the chairman of the National Steering Committee of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grant Programme (SGP) have been pressing for reform of the Social Partnership, which former head of the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry Mark Thompson also believes is in need of an overhaul.
In a further swipe at the agreement yesterday, outspoken trade unionist Caswell Franklyn described it as “nonsense” and “a way to control the unions”.
However, Arthur is more concerned about the lack of national consensus in the midst of what he calls “the most far-reaching economic crisis” in Barbados’ history.
He told the St Maarten gathering “it is no secret that the country has to resolve an enormous fiscal problem for which a programme of fiscal consolidation was allegedly being implemented”.
However, he said no effort had been made to build national consensus as to the scope of the adjustment, and the design of new modalities for the delivery of services to the public.
“More importantly, there is no consensus as to how the private sector can be empowered to expand to carry out activities, which have historically been judged to fall within the prerogative of the state, as the Government address the fiscal issues that it cannot ignore.
“Barbados will flounder in the absence of a national consensus on this matter whose resolution will make the decisive difference to its future coherent and inclusive development.
“So will St Maarten, if there are matters such as immigration, your relationship with your economic partners and other vital, strategic matters, where a clear sense of purpose and a clear path to success can only be realised if there is a strong national consensus as to where you should go, and how you should get there,’ he said.