Year in Review: Labour heavily burdened
In a year of economic turbulence, perhaps no sector more than labour was rocked by unprecedented upheavals. Painful layoffs, empty-handed workers, tense negotiations, bitter stalemates and urgent interventions –– there was never a dull moment on the industrial front.
As the curtains came down on 2013, it was clear from the outset that challenges would abound for the trade union movement after Minister of Finance Minister Chris Sinckler put rumours to rest and confirmed in a December 13 Ministerial Statement that 3,000 public servants would be axed as part of belt-tightening measures to remedy the ailing economy. The cuts were scheduled to begin on January 15, but the first sign of things to come were on the final day of 2013, when 300 plus workers from the Drainage Unit under the National Environment Enhancement Programme (NEEP) were handed walking papers.
The process drew the ire of the National Union of Public Workers, and general secretary Dennis Clarke declared the act against the workers was “extremely shabby, shameful and disgraceful”.
“You have not given them written notice . . . . We have people here who have to pay their mortgages. We have people in here that their spouses would have passed away within the last few weeks. They are the sole person who works in the house. The debt that they are faced with . . . .
“They have loans from the bank. How do they pay them? Where are they going to get the money? You have people inside here with four, five, six children. How are they going to survive?” asked Clarke.
Four days later, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart stepped in to ease the tension and held talks with the displaced workers. He admitted that he was not amused by the handling of the matter.
“I felt I needed to express my regret to the workers that the matter was handled untidily, as it was in fact handled.”
Minister of the Environment Dr Denis Lowe insisted that the dismissal of the NEEP workers had nothing to do with the Government’s retrenchment of 3,000 public servants. Nevertheless, the development roused trade union leaders into action and they presented a ten-point proposal to Stuart and his ministerial team to save the jobs of public servants.
It included a reduction in the Value Added Tax (VAT), as well as a 30 per cent cut in the salaries of Government ministers and the reintroduction of bus fares for schoolchildren. Still it was not enough to persuade the Government to abandon its plan.
There was however a delay of the retrenchment process, which was rescheduled for January 31, to allow the Ministry of the Civil Service to complete the final list of those who would be sent home. In explaining the situation, Prime Minister Stuart said: “Because of the constraints under which we have had to operate in even generating the list, [it] has proven to be a bigger challenge than would have been the case in 1991 [the last occasion when large numbers of public servants were sent home].
“The Ministry of the Civil Service has taken a lot more time. It has had to be a lot more careful. What I have said is that we target now the end of the month [January]; that deadline is not negotiable.”
By then there was growing criticism of the union’s handling of the matter and collective calls for unions to hit the streets. But general secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union, Sir Roy Trotman, rubbished the calls.
“I don’t know who it will help. It certainly will not help the persons who will get laid off.”
As the day of reckoning inched closer, Cabinet approved the framework for the reduction of workers in the public sector and the payment of terminal benefits to displaced officers. A detailed Government circular issued on January 22 to permanent secretaries and heads of department instructed that the retrenchment policy should generally be “last in first out”. But a mere six days later, when the axe finally fell and 300 workers from the National Housing Corporation got their green papers, workers and union leaders charged that the process was not followed.
Single mother Daile Sutton, who has three of her four children living with her, received a pay slip of around $1, 651.
“I am the only breadwinner in the house and I have my kids to send to school and deal with my big son ’cause he ain’t working, and its real, real hard.”
BWU boss Sir Roy roundly condemned the severing of the 300 workers at the NHC, saying the action was “uncouth and dastardly”. The cries of injustice rose even louder as the dreaded restructuring exercise affected scores at Beautify Barbados, the Transport Board, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, the Barbados Revenue Authority and other Government departments.
But it was the April 30 dismissal of 200 workers from the National Conservation Commission that would put union leaders and the Government’s negotiators through their greatest test.
General worker Maureen Reece, who was employed at the NCC for 13 years, expressed concern at being placed on the breadline, saying “this is not fair to us that workers that have years in here going home and people with political connections retaining their jobs”.
Like Reece, workers represented by the BWU or the NUPW insisted that the last in, first out policy was not being applied and the unions demanded a recall of the process charging that their members had signed letters of retrenchment under duress or in ignorance.
“The NCC did not follow the process, and we are insisting that the process must be followed. Failure to follow the process has led to these issues arising. We in the trade union movement are adamant that the process must be followed and respected by the management of the NCC,” Dwaine Paul, the BWU’s deputy director of industrial relations said.
Repeated negotiations between NCC management and the workers’ representatives and even the intervention of the Chief Labour Officer yielded no progress, and the matter was subsequently turned over to Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, who referred the matter to the Employment Rights Tribunal.
“Based on the evidence provided during the meeting, there appears to be some procedural missteps which must be fixed, but the task of correcting them should not fall on the NCC management,” suggested the Prime Minister.
But seven months after the tribunal was mandated to hear the cases of the NCC workers, it still had not convened any hearing and in a surprise move on December 5, eight of the nine members resigned, citing frustration over the failure of the authorities to meet basic requests for hearings to begin. The move caught empty-handed workers by surprise, who were left to wonder if their case would ever be given
a fair hearing.
“It sounds to me like a waste of time. If they resign now, that means they never had our interest at heart. Is it [justice] going to take longer, or is it going to happen at all, because they will have to look for a different set of people now? Is it going to happen? It’s very frustrating because I don’t know where we are going from here now. Where are we going?” Cynthia Ifill, a former NCC worker asked.
Unions and the Opposition Barbados Labour Party have since demanded the immediate reinstatement of the workers even as Minister of Labour Dr Esther Byer-Suckoo pressed ahead with the formation of another tribunal.
As the year drew to a close, the workers served notice that they would march on Parliament.
The industrial troubles of 2014 also hit the sugar sector after 57 employees at Andrew Sugar Factory were sent home. This did not sit well with their 160 colleagues at Portvale Sugar Factory and the Barbados Workers’ Union, which staged a crippling eight-day work stoppage. After six days of intense and sometimes charged negotiations under the chairmanship of Minister of Labour Byer-Suckoo, the disputing parties reached a deal in the wee hours of Good Friday morning.
Tension was also running high at the Barbados Community College over a contentious dispute over new employment contracts. The NUPW charged the controversial contracts placed its members at a disadvantage and it called for investigations into the operations of the BCC. Before the two sides could sit at the table, the impasse came to the head and union officials were locked out of the college, even as armed police were called in back in November.
The college insisted that it had to restructure its operations and it appealed to unions to adhere to protocols in place for grievance handling and dispute settlement. The dispute is yet to be settled.
It was also a tough year at the United Commercial Autoworks Limited where workers were forced to down tools several times this year to force authorities to pay overdue wages and salaries. After the last round of protests in October, the workers called on the Transport Board to commit to a deadline for the payment of $3.7 million and guarantee more work for employees.
“We want the $3.7 million promised to cover the operations until the end of the financial year, cover our overdraft, and cover backpay the company owes the workers from 2007. The workers are owed $1.3 million in backpay from 2007. The company cannot pay the backpay because it does not have any money to pay.” said shop steward and company director Richard Newton.
Apart from the action on the picket line, there were equally big movements in the labour sector. After more than 21 years at the helm of the BWU, veteran trade unionist Sir Roy Trotman stepped down, passing the baton to the union’s first female general secretary –– 38-year-old Toni Moore who promised to ensure that workers were not taken advantage of.
NUPW general secretary Dennis Clarke also retired at the end of October. The union has begun the process of selecting his replacement.