Angry exchanges between workers and employers, inflexible postures, industrial action and the threat in one instance of a complete shutdown of the country, contributed to making 2015 a generally unstable year for industrial relations on the island.
The year began with a tough stance from the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT) demanding that the Ministry of Education give permanent appointments to “temporary” teachers who have been working for ten or more years.
The BUT also called on the Ministry to address other pressing issues affecting its members.
After months of lobbying by the union, the Ministry of Education announced permanent appointments for 416 of the nearly 1,000 “temporary” teachers. It was the largest single batch of appointments in any ministry.
“The issue of teachers has been one where there has been some anxiety over time, particularly in the wake of the slight reduction in the number of persons who were attached to the public service of Barbados,” said Minister of Education Ronald Jones.
“I would hope that this great work would now put an end to the agitation; [that] it will now put an end to information that in many instances was based upon an incorrect premise,” Jones added.
However, the year would draw to a close with the teachers’ representative still unhappy, questioning how the Ministry went about the selection process on which the appointments were based.
“One major sore point was the fact that teachers had no idea what criteria was being used . . . so when the first batch of teachers came, they realized those persons were teaching for 14, 13, 12, 17 years . . . the next batch, nine, 11 [years], and so they were of the view they were looking at it in terms of years,” BUT President Pedro Shepherd said.
He added: “The teachers are adamant that they need to find out from the Ministry how soon they can have their letters of appointment as well, because they still cannot receive mortgages, receive loans from commercial banks and some of them have basically put their lives on hold for the time being.”
Also pressing for justice and accusing the Ministry of “disrespect” was the Barbados Secondary Teachers Union (BSTU). The bell would toll signaling an end to the first term of the new 2015-16 school year without the stroke of a pen correcting School Based Assessment (SBA) projects for Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) exams.
“We will continue to assist students to complete their SBAs, do everything that we are accustomed to doing in that regard, but in terms of marking the scripts and doing all of the data entry work, we will not be doing that,” BSTU President Mary Redman made clear.
The BSTU has been making a case for teachers to be paid for correcting the SBAs.
These woes would somewhat set the tone for labour issues in the country, as a dynamic group of young trade unionists, under the leadership of 34-year-old Akanni McDowall, took control of the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) following elections for a new executive.
Declaring that his team was here to look after the business of labour, McDowall soon got a baptism of fire as NUPW president when a vexing issue arose at the Barbados Investment and Development Corporation (BIDC) that involved the forced retirement of 10 employees who had reached the age of 60.
That decision would aggravate simmering industrial tensions in the country. Calling for the workers to be reinstated, the NUPW’s first response was a protest march through the capital, Bridgetown.
Explaining the action, the BIDC said it had invoked its right under the Statutory Boards (Pensions) Act to retire officers who had reached the age of 60. However, the NUPW insisted the move was illegal. As an alternative to reinstatement, it proposed paying the workers up to the age of 67 which is the retirement age recognized by the National Insurance Scheme (NIS).
The issue would bring the country to the brink of a national shut down which was set for Friday July 10. In the run-up to this date, the union had started the phased implementation of various stages of an island-wide strike.
Workers employed with the Sanitation Service Authority (SSA) joined the industrial action. As a result, garbage was not picked up, leading to unsightly pile-ups around the island. Burials at public cemeteries managed by the SSA were also affected.
Travel and trade in and out of the island were also affected as unionized workers at the Immigration Department joined those at the Customs Department on a go-slow.
However, following several meetings between union representatives and Government officials, the matter would be settled at the eleventh hour. The BIDC gave in to the NUPW’s demands and reinstated the workers, causing the planned national shutdown to be called off.
However, the NUPW which described the settlement with the BIDC as a victory for workers all across Barbados, was not done. It had had the support of the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) throughout the impasse.
“With today’s precedent, unions are therefore calling on the Government to rescind the letters to the QEH [Queen Elizabeth Hospital] and Customs Department employees and to workers employed by any other Government-run organization that we may not have heard to date,” McDowall said at the time.
The country’s ports would also be affected by industrial action. Over 3,000 cruise visitors were inconvenienced due to a go-slow by Customs officers at the Bridgetown Port.
Their work to rule was triggered by uncertainty about their future in light of the planned absorption of the Customs & Excise Department into the Barbados Revenue Authority (BRA) that was scheduled to come into effect on July 1.
After a disruptive two months, the industrial action was called off following a near four-hour long meeting at the Ministry of Finance’s Bay Street office between Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, management of BRA and the workers’ representatives.
The BWU also had its own battles to fight. One involved the Central Bank of Barbados where close to 60 employees walked off the job on September 12 to protest the hiring of an intern at a higher salary than appointed workers.
After the Central Bank’s management refused to meet with union representatives, BWU Deputy General Secretary Dwaine Paul threw down the gauntlet, insisting that the union would not sit idly by and allow employers to continually disrespect workers or their representatives.
“We are not putting up with this foolishness. Enough is enough. We have said that before and we have demonstrated it when we had the BIDC matter and I think the Central Bank wants us to call the troops together again,” Paul said, making reference to the BIDC dispute and the related threats to shut down the country.
Four days later, the workers were back on the job and the temporary appointment which caused their protest action, was rescinded.
BWU General Secretary Toni Moore made it clear that the action was not against the worker but stemmed from the Central Bank’s failure to engage the union in the appropriate manner.
Just when it felt like the labour scene had settled down, the heat would be turned up again — this time at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) where the kitchen staff walked off the job, complaining they were frustrated with having to work in a hot and uncomfortable environment.
The situation would simmer down, however, after officials promised to rectify the situation with extractor fans.
Before that, staff at the School Meals Department were peeved over changes to their working hours and the Psychiatric Hospital was also hit by strike action over what workers complained was an unsanitary and unsafe working environment.
As the year drew to a close the labour tensions would move over to “Apes Hill where over 40 maintenance workers also cried “enough is enough”. The BWU would also issue warnings to management of the plush Sandy Lane after management refused to have any part in a three-year wage increase approved by other hoteliers.
During 2015, dismissed workers of the National Conservation Commission (NCC) finally got their day before the Employment Rights Tribunal on October 1 after a year of waiting.
However, the hearings made little progress because of several delays. The latest, which occurred in December, would draw the ire of tribunal chairman Hal Gallop, Q.C. The issue remained unresolved at year-end.
The instability which defined the industrial relations climate in 2015 may very well continue in the New Year. Just before the Christmas holidays, NUPW General Secretary Roslyn Smith, who was appointed this past year to replace Dennis Clarke who has retired, served notice on employers to prepare for a more militant union in 2016.