Surprise strike at BHL

Operations at the island’s largest beverage manufacturer Banks Holding Limited (BHL) were abruptly halted this morning after disgruntled workers walked off the job on what is normally the company’s biggest production day.

Eighty per cent of the company’s over 500 staff took the action over what their bargaining agent, the Barbados Workers Union (BWU) said were a “number of grievances”.

The industrial action, which affected all of BHL’s subsidiaries, namely Banks (Barbados) Breweries Limited, The Barbados Bottling Company Limited, B&B Distribution Limited and the Pine Hill, has reportedly cost BHL “hundreds of thousands of dollars”.

The company’s Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director Richard Cozier hastily summoned a news conference at which he did not hide his disappointment over the action. In fact, he described it as “an orchestrated wildcat strike” that took management by surprise.

“There was certainly no indication that such would happen and we are still trying to find out from the union representatives actually what are the root causes and what is prompting this action. There has certainly been no previous information from within the employee ranks represented by the BWU that there was a break down in talks,” Cozier told reporters.

He however alluded to talks, which were ongoing concerning the rebranding of BHL’s distribution company, B&B Distribution, scheduled to take effect on November 1.

That rebranding exercise has already led to separation packages for nine non-unionized workers in September. However, three from the bargaining unit are also set to go on the breadline.

Cozier did not believe that was enough to justify today’s crippling stoppage by mostly production and distribution staff.

 “Currently we are in talks with the Barbados Workers Union to renegotiate contracts, which are expired or have expired, and for new contracts of employment for the persons they represent within the bargaining unit. Those talks are still at the domestic level,” he said, while stating that in some cases the union’s proposals were currently double what has been traditionally paid.

However, after meeting with some of the striking workers at the BHL’s Newton compound, the BWU General Secretary Toni Moore rejected Cozier’s suggestion that the action had taken the company off guard.

She told Barbados TODAY her office had been corresponding with the BHL management on the “workers grievances” for some time.

 “As recently as Wednesday, the 22nd of October, we directed correspondence that spoke to [the issue of integration],” she said.

However, notwithstanding the union’s request to have the outstanding matters concluded and warnings issued to the company against any “bulldozing action on its part”, the company had failed to take the BWU seriously.

 “We [had] asked the company for a meeting within seven days. We had explained to them at different levels that the workers were sufficiently aggrieved that this [strike] could be the result.”

But BHL Group Human Resources Manager Lisa Ridley-Paul said today’s action flew in the face of proper industrial relations protocol.

“We are accustomed to having a cordial relationship with the Barbados Workers Union so this is a departure from the norm, but in all cases of industrial relations in Barbados there are collective agreements; there’s the Social Partnership and protocols, there’s also the Employment Rights Act and there is a process for dealing with grievances. That process has not been adhered to in this circumstance,” Ridley-Paul said.

A letter to that effect was forwarded to the BWU from the BHL. Barbados TODAY has obtained a copy of the correspondence, which stated, among other things, that workers who participated in today’s strike would not be paid.

But the BWU boss made it clear that the threat would not deter the union or its members.

However, the two sides agreed to meet at 5 p.m. today on condition that workers on the 3 p.m. shift reported for duty.

Following the more than five-hour meeting, Group Public Relations Manager Sophia Cambridge told Barbados TODAY the two sides will resume negotiations on Monday.

In the meantime, workers will remain on the job pending the outcome of the discussions.

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