Incredulity of labour

The major labour unions in Barbados are spitting in the air and trying to catch it regarding their concerns over the BLP’s proposed policies on social empowerment and the economic enfranchisement of Barbados’ working class.

From the onset, it is fair to say that the life of the trade union movement which started with the Barbados Workers Union, continuing through with the National Union of Public Workers, and more recently joined by the Unity Workers Union, have focussed on the representation of workers regarding their terms and conditions on service, labour rights, and fair wages.

Since 1995, there was the umbrella body that embodies the general trade union membership — the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados. CTUSAB, from the inception, claims to have had as its apex the “protection of labour” and the need “to protect the entire fabric of Barbadian society”. In terms of CTUSAB’s aims, focus came together in direct response to the DLP’s 1990s implementation of austere measures which were draconian and debilitating to the worker.

Austere policy prescriptions were introduced into Barbados as part of severe IMF conditionalities to overcome the problem of macroeconomic mismanagement in the local economy by the then DLP Administration. So much was the case that Harold Codrington asserted in 1993 that “organised labour was troubled by the decrease in the status of workers” inclusive of the “lay-offs, wage cuts, shortened work-weeks and reduced severance payment entitlements”.

The specific conditions caught the attention of the labour unions; and the trade union’s voices became stern against the eight per cent pay-cut to public servants.

The harshness of forcing public servants to endure economic disenfranchisement was a topical issue because devaluation of the Barbados dollar became a high probability given the negative dynamics that manifested subsequent to the mangled treatment by the DLP regarding its 1991 manifesto pledges.

Indeed, MP Denis Kellman stated some time after that he thought one ought not “to regard a manifesto as a social contract because one must recognise that when a manifesto is written, it is written at a time when especially a party in Opposition thinks they can do certain things. But when they realise that they cannot, they should be free to change their minds and to explain to the people why they have changed their minds”. Perhaps this may partially explain the loads of broken promises contained in the 2008 DLP manifesto, which to date have not been aptly addressed by the DLP except to suggest that the worst recession in 100 years has forced the DLP on the back foot regarding its tease to the electorate in Barbados.

One commentator wrote that causing to break the backbone of the DLP in the early 1990s was “government’s penchant to provide ‘benefits’ to the electorate without due consideration being given to the full costs including the tax consequences, a factor which contributed in no small measure to the financial crisis that the government” had to cope with in that period. Surely there are similarities between the 1991 and the 2008 DLP Administrations?

The 1991-1994 DLP government, over which Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford presided, failed Barbados in terms of the Government’s fiscal and overall macroeconomic policies. Yet worse was the fact that the then Prime Minister of Barbados appealed to the public workers of Barbados for their help and he begged for them to trust him. Prime Minister Sandiford’s delivery was a lethal dose of high unemployment.

To be specific, it was on March 23, 1991 that Sir Lloyd made his plea in which he said: “I am taking you into my confidence. We have no intentions of cutting back on any employment at this stage. We have made provision for the public service as it has been made over the past years. There is no retrenchment anywhere proposed … we believe it is very important that people should hold their jobs, because jobs represent the livelihood of all of us, and we wish to maintain that.”

Today in Barbados, there is a rather scary statement bearing much resemblance to Sir Lloyd’s stacked deck of jokers. One must wonder, and strictly based on the track record of the DLP, what is likely to happen should Chris Sinckler and the DLP get their wishes to move ahead with clandestine restructuring giving the appetite to be critical of the BLP whilst saying in absolute terms, no to divestment, restructuring, and reshaping the public sector.

Sinckler, the Minister of Finance in this Stuart-led DLP Administration, said on November 27, 2012 from his theatre in Parliament that “it is not the intention of the Government of Barbados to displace any workers associated with those agencies [i.e. revenue earning] that are likely to be affected by the changes” being proposed by the DLP for the centralisation and restructuring of the composition and day-to-day running of the operations of certain Government departments.

Furthermore, Sinckler emphasises that while it is the Government’s intention to sit down with the labour unions in the near future, it “is the position of this Government … that they [the public servants] should be on no less firm a footing than any other officer in the public service who have had to be affected by these issues” of restructuring and reorganisation.

Sinckler paraded and pampered that he “want to allay the fears of those working in customs, those working in Inland Revenue, those working in the Licensing Authority, that there is no intention by this Government to cause anyone in those agencies to be dislocated or to lose their employment”.

This writer sees an uncanny familiarity between the claims by both DLP speakers regarding their non-intention to hurt public workers, despite the retardation in frontally discussing proposed changes with the trade unions.

Yet, to put the DLP’s position in true perspective regarding labour, one can resort to the historical records which will show that Denis Kellman who is currently the longest serving member of the DLP in the House of Assembly asserted in 1999 that “the trade union movement has failed this country… I will tell you why. I see what is going on in Barbados like a triangle. On one side you have the private sector making a lot of money. On the other side you have the Government raking in a lot of money but, lo and behold, at the bottom of the triangle, you cannot get the workers to connect to the triangle to get some of the money”.

Is this attitude not consistent with the DLP today that has started to undertake and implement practices that will effect labour in the public service of Barbados, but to date the Minister of Finance have not been pressed by labour to prioritise labour in the various discussions and negotiations on the several cost-cutting transformations?

Equally, it becomes clearer that DLP speakers, though times and circumstances have changed over the course of the last two decades, rested their political gamble on pathways for bringing together the so-called triangle that affords the workers in this country some economic elbow room.

The DLP’s guarantees, however, are simply political tokens held up to the gullible and uninformed. Interestingly, Bobby Morris, a trade unionist, who in the tumultuous 1990s was a DLP Member of Parliament, and who coincidentally happens to be part of the current governance structure with his appointment as Ambassador to CARICOM, said to the Lower House on April 28, 1992 that: “Issues of social benefits to workers can be clouded by emotion but a lot of them are wrapped up into economic and financial aspects. If you have a scheme of benefits that does not function because it is constructed wrongly in terms of economics or finance it is bound to fail. When it fails and is destroyed it will be of benefit to no one.”

Morris advised then that a government is “under a bounden duty to amend it in such a way that the greatest good will go to the greatest number. One has to be able to understand that sometimes you have to take one step back in order to go six steps forward. Sometimes the best way to defend a position is to give way”. Bobby Morris of 1992 could well have been speaking to Chris Sinckler and the DLP of 2012. Although the DLP says it has no intention to dislocate or harm workers, one is directed by history to gauge the possibility of failure or success when the workers’ representatives are viewed as an afterthought or co-opted individual in the process of transformation. In fact it was Kellman who once quipped that Barbadians “have a situation in this country where union leaders are trying to out-fox one another just to sign an agreement to look good? They then brag and say that they have signed the agreement”.

The matters facing the public servants, workers in the private sector, and the labour representatives in Barbados will require investments into the high risk political game of transparency and accountability, and in integrity and credibility.

Can the leaders in the DLP be trusted to make substantial changes on the composition of the public service workers given their dismal record of meting out unemployment in exchange of solicited trust? Can Barbadians believe the DEMS when its speakers rely on gaining the peoples’ trust by cunning and then resort to floating political fluff on an air of peoples’ expectations and dwindling hopes?

Will labour representatives and Barbadian workers trust Chris Sinckler who is only willing to engage at the backend of done deals? Can the Prime Minister or the labour unions trust a Minister of Finance who, in November 2012, is practically repeating a message of protection as delivered by the Erskine Sandiford Government of 1991? Will Barbados ever forget the carnage done to workers across the country in the period 1991 to 1994?

Vexatious to labour, and especially to the public sector in Barbados, is that Sir Lloyd in 1991 concluded his invocation to the NUPW with a summation telling the masses of workers that “if we seek to survive, maintain and further enhance our present position … then we must of necessity deny ourselves present satisfaction and consumption for future enhanced consumption and satisfaction”. Is this the basis that the Governor of the Central Bank recently told Barbadians that “given the projected sluggish real GDP growth for the remainder of fiscal year 2012/13 and the likely negative impact on tax revenues, expenditure management remains the central focus of Government’s economic strategy going forward?”

More certain, is that tough times, stubbornness, and a host of insecurities within the inter-relationships of government, labour, and the corporate (employer) sectors in Barbados during the combined period of Sir Lloyd and Thompson at the economic helm gravitated to shape an uncertain economic environment for Barbadians.

The current phase of events that sees Stuart and Sinckler in amalgamation, if not in discursive tandem with each other, promotes the doubts and fears that catapulted the working class of Barbados into the economic doldrums as evidenced between 1991 and 1994. Once again, it appears as if the well-being of workers is being compromised due to poor policy choices and a misreading and/or marginalising of labour by the DLP administration of the day.

The impact and likely devastation on organised labour has compelled Barbadians to reach a point wherein marching by the thousands may yet become a viable alternative against the non-disclosure and the several contradictions falling from the lips of the DLP Cabinet members.

Labour representatives and advocates must speak and act in efforts to regain visibility and the influence for which the various memberships pay their dues with already scarce and over-taxed resources.

Labour must stand up to the Government. The legislature, inclusive of the Opposition BLP, must be held accountable each time labour is trampled or has justifiable reasons to fear job security. That the BLP has put in the public domain the blueprint for expanding the ownership base in the country is commendable.

Any transformation, restructuring, or divestments that will alter the circumstances for labour, positively or negatively, ought to be discussed in public. The worker cum owner is to be recognised by Government and the Opposition as being integral to national development and must therefore be propelled to the forefront of any implicit or explicit reforms or shift in the control and diversification of state assets and interests.

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