Minister of Tourism and International Transport Richard Sealy said he was prepared to step in to prevent a shutdown of the Grantley Adams International Airport (GAIA) by the country’s largest public sector trade union.
In a brief comment to Barbados TODAY this evening, Sealy said he would look into a row between the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) and GAIA over outstanding payments, because of the critical nature of the situation.
Fed up with the delay in settling an outstanding 3.5 per cent wage rise dating back to 2010, the NUPW today gave the airport’s management 24 hours to come up with a favourable response to its demands, failing which its approximately 400 members would take industrial action on Friday.
Barbados TODAY first reported last night on possible industrial action at the airport on Friday.
A shutdown would deal a crippling blow to the island’s recovering tourism industry, which the Central Bank said was also the only measurable sector to record growth in 2015 and was responsible for a 0.5 per cent growth in the economy.
Sealy did not say how he planned to address the issue, telling Barbados TODAY that he first needed to get a full picture of the situation.
The union met with the workers at the airport’s training room for about 90 minutes from 2 p.m. today and shortly thereafter, General Secretary Roslyn Smith confirmed that GAIA had been given an ultimatum.
“The meeting was called to update the workers at GAIA Inc in respect of the outstanding 3.5 per cent owed to them coming from a salaries agreement as far back as 2010 to 2012. We have written to the management here at GAIA Inc and we are awaiting a response.
“We have given management until tomorrow evening to respond to us, failing which we will start whatever action that is necessary to let the management, the Board of Directors, the Minister of International Transport and all of those involved in this exercise know that we are serious on this matter,” Smith told journalists.
Flanked by NUPW President Akanni McDowall and General Treasurer Asokore Beckles, Smith refused to reveal how much money was at stake, but she stressed that the matter had been outstanding for almost five years.
She also dismissed suggestions that GAIA did not owe the 3.5 per cent increase because the NUPW had agreed a wage freeze, insisting that the union’s research showed that the monies were owned to the workers and the NUPW would not move away from its position.
It was the line toed by McDowall.
“If management has a position where they are saying they do not owe the money, they need to bring it and show us. However, our evidence, our research, our correspondence suggest that they owe the workers 3.5 per cent. We have shown evidence to management that the workers are owed 3.5 per cent,” the union president emphasized.
However, Barbados TODAY has obtained a copy of a letter to the union from GAIA, in which Chief Executive Officer David Barrow suggested that the union had reneged on a previous agreement to forego the increase.
The letter dated January 18 and addressed to Smith, made reference to a meeting with Prime Minister Freundel Stuart on December 28, 2010 in which a compromised was reached.
Barrow reminded the union leader that the collective agreement at the time was for the period from January 2010 to December 2011 and that they had agreed a four per cent rise for 2010 and a 3.5 per cent increase for 2011. However, the minister responsible for international travel at the time, George Hudson, made it clear there would be no wage increases due to the economic climate.
“A compromise position was reached at that meeting [with the Prime Minister] in which the Prime Minister indicated that he would advise his Cabinet that approval can be granted for the four per cent increase in 2010 and that the 3.5 per cent increase for 2011 would be taken off the table,” the GAIA CEO wrote.
“The NUPW consequently advised GAIA Inc by letter dated 4th January 2011, that it had held a meeting with its membership on 3rd January 2011, where the workers agreed to accept an increase of four per cent in 2010 and zero per cent in 2011, as requested by the Government.”
In response, the union argued that it had made it clear that it would revisit the 2011 increases if the economy showed improvement by June 2011.
In her January 25 reply, Smith argued that if GAIA wanted to tie the company to the public service policy as it related to a wage freeze, the employees ought to have received the same 20 per cent increase given to public servants between 2008 and 2010.
“Based on the fact that the Company made profits over the last five years it proves the Union is correct in seeking the outstanding salary increases for staff,” she wrote.
This is the second time in the past three months that Sealy had been called into action to resolve disputes at the airport.
In late October last year the Minister was forced to intervene after protesting air traffic controllers went on sick-out to protest against what they described at the time as long-standing environmental problems, poor physical conditions and dissatisfaction with the style of air traffic management, forcing lengthy flight delays.