COLUMN – Partnership versus survival
Monday, July 13, 2015, was a seminal day in the life of the island of Barbados. Taking place were critical meetings that would shape and determine the political and social history of the island.
The National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) summoned its workers to their Dalkeith home in order to update members on the outstanding matters occupying the union’s attention.
By the time the meeting started there was standing room only in the auditorium of the NUPW, and the issues which were causing concern to the leadership of the union and its members were outlined. The matters seemed reasonable and within the purview of the union.
The major issue remained the forced retirement of 13 workers of the state-operated Barbados Investment & Development Corporation (BIDC) and the perceived disrespect meted out to the workers’ collective representative.
More details about the workers’ plight emerged at the meeting. For instance, the 2004 amendments made to the National Insurance Scheme in Section 8a built in a type of percentage penalty for early retirement. The earlier a person retires, half per cent a month or six per cent per annum is deducted from the payable pension every year until the national retirement age is reached.
This means that the staff of the BIDC who were retired upon reaching 60 would have lost their right to choose to work until the national retirement age and get an unaffected pension. Even if heightened strike action had, just on the face value, been a reaction to to the pension issue of 13 the workers alone, it still does not seem excessive –– if the matter stands to alter national precedent. Moreover, if the protest action of the union is seen in its full context, it is much less puzzling.
The trade union movement in Barbados made, what is in my opinion, an unprecedented decision in 1993 to become members of the Social Partnership arrangement in this country. It is unprecedented, because the union risked being on the wrong historical side of the
coin in a Caribbean region where a healthy dislike for “massa” and any organs of “massa” was expected and stingily guarded by union associates.
The unions have always worked in tandem with the political parties, and their geneses are closely related; but up to 1993 they had never sought any kind of symbiotic relationship with “massa”. It is ironic that the “sell-out” of the Social Partnership then was not delivered by massa, but the long-time cousin and companion of the union movement, the Labour Party.
In its quest to be a “good partner”, the union accepted no pay increase for over seven years. Even after the Government had broken its social contract by laying off workers after building a campaign of no lay-offs, the union let them keep their political capital by opting to hold strain instead of using strike action.
The union took the word of a long-standing companion that the matter of the National Conservation Commission would be heard by the Employment Rights Tribunal as a matter of urgency even before the tribunal was completely established. The issue of the break in the Social Partnership was as a result of the current Minister of Labour’s refusal to fund the former general secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union’s participation in an overseas meeting, which could be seen by some as a further affront and by others as a refusal of an unreasonable expectation.
I suggest that by the time the Social Partnership got to the fractured stage, owing to the denied request, that matter was inconsequential because the philosophical damage had already been exacted.
The union tried its best to toe the line of the Social Partnership for as long as it was feasible; but, as with every rocky marriage, the partners at some point have to decide whether they opt to keep a farcical relationship going or whether they opt
to preserve themselves and move on. The union indeed had to make a choice about its personal survival.
Both major unions, the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) and the NUPW were witnessing frustration of members and high attrition rates. In this full context, the strike action by the NUPW and the support of the BWU were not surprising and seemed tactically correct, as well as politically and socially mindful.
The strike may be seen as the culmination of the result of the 2013 statistically dead-heated election. The DLP administration, without the political wiggle room to run the country, has brought Barbados to a standstill. The standstill is not metaphorical. Every major engine of growth and development in this island is compromised by indecision, uncertainty in a new wine skin that is only concerned with the pouring of eight-year pension. The health care sector, education, small business development, restructuring of the economy and the economy itself are all in shambles, owing to the way governance is being approached.
On top of this, the austerity needed to reshape Barbados begins below Cabinet level. Where every business and household on the island has undergone cost-trimming measures, the Cabinet of Barbados has maintained a fatty composition with the grand total of 17 ministers and three parliamentary secretaries. And there is still significant overseas travel, and no indication of any scaling down of Government functions which may be deemed as frills.
Everything considered, it was no surprise that the workers were not going to continue to hold strain under the circumstances.
One pertinent titbit at the BWU meeting was that the practice of partnership and volunteerism in the Social Partnership model of Barbados was being frowned upon by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This allegation needs to be clarified by the Government of Barbados; but I am not optimistic about the engagement.
While I support debt-easing mechanisms for Barbados, there needs to be a clear decision about what we are willing to relinquish and what we will not budge on. Alas, we have not set a good precedent with free education; but such questions bring us back to the question of the Social Partnership and the philosophical betrayal of it.
I walked past the statue of Errol Walton Barrow with my youngest son last week. He asked me who the man was, and I said Errol Walton Barrow. He quipped: “The Father Of Independence?”
I affirmed it and added: “The man who told poor people to stay out of the law courts.” What other options do we have but to open back the country by first shuting it down? Strike action averted; but I am still pessimistic.
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email: email@example.com)