The National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) is demanding an apology from Prime Minister Freundel Stuart for dismissing trade union agitation on behalf of Customs & Excise Department workers facing transfer to the new Barbados Revenue Authority (BRA) as “noises (which) have to be made”.
President Akanni McDowall told reporters at a news conference this evening Stuart’s remarks over the weekend were “unethical, disrespectful and distasteful” to the entire labour movement.
“You cannot be making statements saying that unions are making noise and then asking those same people to sit down and have negotiations with you,” he said.
Saying the Prime Minister “erred” and the comments represented “a sad day in trade union history in Barbados”, McDowall added: “I would think that he should apologize to Barbadians for the dismissive statement.”
The 6 p.m. news conference was called to announce an emergency meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow at NUPW headquarters, Dalkeith, St Michael that will bring together Customs & Excise Department employees represented by the NUPW to address urgent matters related to the planned transition to the BRA.
In a related development this evening, the Barbados Workers Union (BWU), which also represents Customs & Excise employees, announced that a major dislocation at the island’s crucial ports of entry had been averted for the time being.
How long the planned industrial action by Customs officers and guards remains on hold, would depend on the message which Head of the Civil Service Martin Cox brings back to the BWU when both sides meet again next Monday at Government Headquarters.
BWU General Secretary Toni Moore conveyed the news to Barbados TODAY after she and a delegation of more than 100 Customs officers and guards emerged from a near three-hour meeting with the BRA, chaired by Cox, to discuss the planned absorption of the Customs & Excise Department into the BRA on July 1.
Flanked by Customs Division President Nicholas Mason and Vice President Maurice Walcott on the steps of Government Headquarters, Moore said while she was disappointed that they did not achieve their goals, the union had agreed to pause any proposed action to allow the Civil Service head to seek further guidance from his Ministry so he could provide the right answers which were absent from today’s talks.
The BWU boss explained what she had wanted to come out of today’s meeting: “We had a meeting on All Fools’ Day, first of April, at which a number of issues relating to the transition into a Revenue Authority were discussed . . . a lot of the uncertainty; a number of questions asked regarding how we would proceed and commitments were offered and we had expected information on the 10 and 17 of April. We did not receive that information and it was hoped that we could have those issues first and foremost before any other matters could have been brought to the fore at the meeting today.”
Moore noted that correspondence was received within the five days leading up to this meeting, which was over six weeks late then and it was hoped those matters could have been addressed first.
“There was no attempt to get into them and so the meeting had to adjourn for Head of Civil Service to regroup with his principals and provide the answers that we are now seeking,” Moore explained.
Speaking to reporters at the weekend, Prime Minister Stuart also made clear when he made the controversial “noises” statement that “when all is said and done, there is going to be a Barbados Revenue Authority and the Customs Department is going to be a part of it.”
McDowall complained before reporters this evening the NUPW also lacked vital information from Government on the proposed Customs/BRA merger.
“. . . We in the union would have indicated that we needed information before we proceeded so that our members can make informed decisions. We are at a stage today again where we do not have all of the information and the process is continuing without the involvement of trade union movement,” he said, adding: “It is an act of bad faith. We cannot continue to sit down at a table, make commitments and then do not fulfill those commitments. It is something that we must weed out and take a stand on.”
Issuing a warning to the political directorate, the newly elected NUPW leader warned that going forward under his leadership and his new executive council it would not be business as usual.
“My executive has said it would not be business as usual. We have said that we will deal with this Customs issue in the way that we think is best for our members. We cannot have our members feeling uncomfortable.”
“At this time, I am having that feeling. I do not like it and it is something that I am not comfortable with myself. We must show that the labour movement in Barbados is still alive and well and what unions have to say is important.
“Today I am saying to you as president of the NUPW I will not accept this treatment. Today is the last day you will see this union taking anything from Government that we have not agreed to. The trade union movement in Barbados is no longer impotent,”
Option forms were to have been distributed to Customs employees tomorrow to indicate whether they agreed to go over the BRA but this plan was shelved “to avert escalated industrial action”, Moore said. Custom workers are currently on a go-slow as a mark of protest over the issue. She said any industrial action tomorrow now was “not likely”.
“We never gave a date for any planned action, if there is going to be any action. Of course, we remain optimistic that if the right answers and details are provided, the action that may be contemplated may become unnecessary,” Moore said.
The BRA delegation at the talks with the BWU was led by its head Margaret Sivers who refused to speak with this newspaper, but walked briskly to her vehicle without even looking back.