Customs officers strike over move to BRA
Customs officers walked off the job this morning, protesting against what they said was Government’s attempts to “railroad” them into transitioning to the Barbados Revenue Authority (BRA), and its failure to appoint temporary officers.
Accompanied by the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) Acting Assistant General Secretary Wayne Walrond and General Secretary of the Unity Workers Union (UWU), Caswell Franklyn, the Customs officers refused to report to their work stations, arguing that they were being coerced by management into signing option forms so they could be absorbed into the BRA.
In an interview with Barbados TODAY, Walrond insisted that talks were continuing on the matter between the NUPW and the Customs Department, yet the authorities were attempting to intimidate the workers, most notably, temporary employees. He warned that the Customs officers would not sign the forms until the consultative process had been completed.
“As you are aware, the NUPW is still in the process of negotiating terms and conditions for the staff of the Customs and Excise Department in relation to the transition to the BRA. It is our understanding that from Monday, management was insisting that staff members sign option forms. We see it as an intimidatory practice, especially in relation to temporary officers, who are seen as vulnerable employees with no security of tenure.
“We at the NUPW take offence to this process. Temporary officers have rights under the constitution, contrary to what is being said, and they have to be treated with respect. Their years of service have some merit. Therefore management cannot treat these workers like that. We are saying that we want the immediate withdrawal of the option forms. No officer will be signing on to any option forms until the process is completed. We are very, very clear in this situation,” Walrond said.
The senior union official complained that he was seeing a “kind of behaviour” creeping into industrial relations practices here, where the consultative process was being ignored.
He defended today’s strike, saying it would appear that industrial action was “the only language” the authorities understood.
“The Customs officers are still cognizant of their duty to the country. Customs officers were forced into a position where it was felt that industrial action was the only language employers understand,” Walrond stated.
Meanwhile, UWU boss, the outspoken Caswell Franklyn, used Prime Minister Freundel Stuart’s words against the administration, claiming that Government was attempting to “blackmail” officers.
In a statement to the media on Monday, Stuart accused leaders of the NUPW and the Barbados Workers Union of using blackmail and bullying tactics in their attempt to force Government to accept their demands in the dispute with the Barbados Investment and Development Corporation.
However, Frankly, whose union represents some of the workers, said it was Government which was using blackmail tactics to browbeat officers to join the new tax administration entity.
And the union leader said temporary workers were the ones most at risk.
“These officers, who in many cases are acting in capacities. . . are entitled to be appointed in accordance with the Public Service Act. Since 2010, Government has refused to approve any appointments for Customs Officer. If you keep officers temporary, they can be more easily manipulated. The blackmail is, ‘if you do not accept the offer to join BRA, then they can be kicked back down to your substantive post’. Some officers will lose as much as $2 000 on their salaries,” Franklyn said.
The UWU general secretary noted that under the Public Service Act, an established post could not remain vacant for more than a year, but in some cases vacant positions in the Customs Department had not been filled for more than ten years.
Meanwhile, the go-slow by Customs workers is said to be inflicting a telling blow on the island’s sea port, with the Chief Executive Officer David Jean-Marie fearful of ‘‘adverse effects” on various capital projects.
Jean-Marie told Barbados TODAY the protest had halted deliveries of lumber from the shed at the Shallow Draught over the past week, and the slow rate of processing documents had resulted in a steep drop in the delivery of cargo.
“The impact is negative because the rate at which you get [deliveries] is normally 20 per hour. I understand it is down to under five. So that must create a negative impact,” the Barbados Port Inc, CEO said.
“It’s not good. It’s not good at all. With respect to some plywood, some lumber stored in the Shallow Draught shed; again what’s been reported to me was that at least during the last six days, a week, we have not been able to deliver lumber from that shed. . . . So there are obviously projects in the country that are being impacted, business is being hampered. We need to have a resolution to this matter so we can get back to business,” Jean-Marie contended.