Minister of Water Resource Management Dr David Estwick has issued a stern warning to striking workers at the Barbados Water Authority (BWA) that now is not the time for any industrial action.
Speaking in Parliament during debate on the Estimates of Expenditure and Revenue for 2016/2017, Dr Estwick highlighted recent water supply challenges, which he said would take some time to fix, while suggesting that a strike by BWA workers was the last thing the country needed.
Unionized BWA employees downed tools this morning after the authority’s management failed to meet a March 15 deadline set by their bargaining agent, the Barbados Workers Union (BWU), for addressing outstanding payments, which date back to 2006.
However, Dr Estwick has called on the unionized workers to look at the broader picture.
“It is national development and the potential worsening of a national crisis at a time when water output in Barbados is at its lowest level in 46 years,” he told Parliament.
The minister also explained that the dispute between the BWA and the BWU stemmed from an agreement in 2004, which had eliminated automatic payment of increments. However, since then the two sides have failed to come up with a suitable alternative, said the minister, who explained that initially a three-points system was proposed.
However, he said not only did that system prove “complex”, but suggested that it would have taken 55 years “to move half of a distance within a particular category” of workers.
“The union recognizing that, and management recognizing that, determined that what we should do is negotiate a different tool to be used for increments evaluation and definition. And it had to be established under a performance management system,” Dr Estwick explained, telling Parliament that to date neither system had effectively been put in place.
However, he said the union was now telling the BWA, “because you did not put it in place you got to pay the workers as though it was in place for nine years.
“What sort of spurious logic is that?” he asked, pointing out that “you don’t have anything on which to evaluate nobody (sic) on”.
“Here is an institution that has been struggling for the last two years because of a drought, cannot supply water to people. We get revenue for supplying water to people. So the revenue of the Barbados Water Authority down, because you cannot supply water in a drought. And you going to come and ask for $36 million on a spurious, unscientific basis?”
The minister said while he did not support employees earning the same salary after spending as many as 15 years on the job, their current course of action was the wrong approach.
He revealed that a consultant specialist was currently dealing with the matter on behalf of the BWA, adding that he had requested that both parties work towards a solution that was in the country’s best interest.
Dr Estwick also used his contribution to the debate on the Appropriation Bill 2016 to update Parliament on Government’s attempts to address the ongoing water outages, which have affected several communities, as well as farmers who have been reeling from a shortage of supply to their crops and livestock.
While stating that the majority of the country’s 24 wells were under significant stress, Dr Estwick revealed that four of the island’s 19 coastal wells had already been taken offline because of the potential risk of saltwater intrusion.
However, he said Government was employing short and medium to long-term strategies to deal with the problem. One short-term strategy is the importation of packaged desalination plants.
“I met with the Israelis yesterday, I met with other providers last week and I can tell you that packaged plants will be in the Bridgetown ports within a matter of three to four week,” the minister announced.
However, he cautioned that these plants would only produce about 500,000 gallons of water per day, while noting that the country was down 2.6 million gallons per day.
“So therefore what happens when you take the water from the package plant, and you run it in the system, it disappears in the system as though you never really put in anything because the conditions are so significantly worse than they would have been in 2002/2004,” Dr Estwick pointed out.
He said Government had also asked that the new transfer system and pumping station at Lazaretto be operational and that the current desalination plant increases its output.
However, he said this had not really helped the situation, “so it’s a matter of volumes that you have to deal with right now because the wells are in that poor situation”.
In the meantime, two operators have been commissioned to establish the two permanent desalination plants within the next 12 to 18 months.
The Government minister said there were also long-term projects in the pipeline in St Philip and St George, with a view to alleviating the current water problems facing residents and businesses.