. . . Pay the SSA workers!
One of the cruellest ironies of Caribbean history recognized by scholars over the years is that this region has enjoyed full employment only during the years of slavery. Those days have happily passed and we continue to wrestle with the provision of jobs for those who want them.
–– Prime Minister Freundel Stuart.
You may recall that in my first article I indicated I had little or no expectation of people agreeing with my perspectives. In light of recent industrial action in Barbados, I recall the above quote attributed to Mr Stuart.
It sprang to mind as a result of what seems to be some measure of national consensus that striking Sanitation Service Authority (SSA) workers shouldn’t be paid.
However, before I get to that specific point, I wish to add my perspective on the thinking behind the quote and its relevance to what we’re seeing in Barbados today.
Also, in that first article I spoke about the ways economists tend to classify things. The history of economics though is a very interesting part of the classification, as it chronicles the evolution of societies at their economic roots.
I don’t know which scholars Mr Stuart might have conferred with before he made his statement, but it is obvious they went to school in August and, as such, their credentials must be in question. Everyone knows the definition of employment is the state of being paid to work for somebody else. At least I assumed that was the case; so I plead guilty to making an ass of you and me, and beg your forgiveness.
The thought process employed by these scholars and Mr Stuart is inherently flawed, since we all know slaves weren’t paid and the idea that those enslaved were happily working in their dream jobs is nothing short of preposterous. However, one must understand the illogic at play in order to make sense of what is currently transpiring
Let me state categorically that whilst I have serious issues with the management of the SSA and its operational inefficiencies of late, the SSA workers, striking or not, must be paid. It is an absolute position that I believe the workers and their representatives should have taken –– even at the inconvenience of the public.
I too was inconvenienced by the strike, but sacrifice is required in order to make fundamental changes in a society; and I am prepared to be inconvenienced in order for the right thing to be done.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that on average each household generates five shopping bags of garbage every week for collection by the SSA. Simple mathematics says that on average a household will generate 20 bags of garbage per month; and the SSA workers are paid either weekly or fortnightly to collect the garbage generated. Given the operational challenges persistently plaguing the SSA, before the strike in many communities across Barbados garbage had been piling up and remained uncollected. Yet the management of the SSA continued to be paid; the board of directors remained in place despite the widespread inconvenience to the public at large.
But the collection personnel strike in support of other colleagues for a few days and there is public outcry for this class of worker not to be paid.
I cannot think of anything more hypocritical that this. To further make the point, there are those amongst us who are vociferously against the payment of striking SSA workers but seemingly have no issue with the fact that the garbage we have generated is now being collected. Faced with such public hostility and the prospect of not being paid for the time on strike, if I was the union representative I would advise the SSA workers to only collect garbage for which they would be paid.
Like it or not, these workers are paid to collect our garbage and we cannot reasonably expect them to do that and not be compensated. To do so, in my mind would be to apply the illogic of Mr Stuart and his scholars and conclude that the SSA workers must in fact be slaves.
Yes, we all were inconvenienced by the strike, but it should not matter when the SSA worker actually collects the garbage from our premises. If we wish to penalize the striking SSA workers, then we the public must be prepared to accept that they have the right to selectively determine how much garbage they will remove, based on our average
Unless the SSA management made alternative arrangements to have the garbage collected, the union should never entertain the idea of sanctioning SSA workers and then expect them to go out and collect all of our garbage. As long as all our garbage has been collected by the SSA workers, then they must be paid in full.
What is more disturbing is that I personally have encountered several civil servants in various departments who confided in me that there were several instances when the Government did not pay them. The odds are that some of these very SSA workers we now want to penalize have been victims in the past of working and not being paid.
In short, the Government has no moral authority to withhold payment of salaries, especially in the case where the work has subsequently been completed.
I ask myself what would Bussa do in a situation like this? Those in the house (management) are actively working against those in the field (garbage collectors) at the behest of black overseers (Prime Minister, minister and board). No matter how you look at it, it is this kind of absurd economic thought process that has so far successfully driven this narrative. It is consistent with the thinking that field labour is dispensable and easily tradable.
The SSA worker is no less important than a doctor, nurse or teacher. Certainly, they are more important than politicians. As a country that prides itself on being educated, we are too easily seduced. The notion of “no work, no pay” is a compelling one that will find little argument from reasonable people.
As a concept, it is perfectly logical, provided those applying said logic were actually working and not asleep on the job.
(Ryan Straughn is an UWI Cave Hill and Central Bank of Barbados-trained economist.