NASSAU –– President of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) Obie Ferguson castigated the Christie administration Wednesday over its handling of a union dispute at the Sandals Royal Bahamian resort, asserting that “gullible” and “compromised” politicians are failing the electorate.
Ferguson’s comments came in defence of several Bahamas Maintenance and Allied Workers Union (BHMAWU) officers who have either been arrested or were being sought by police in connection with Tuesday’s protest over conditions at the Sandals resort.
“It is so depressing that here we are,” Ferguson said during a press conference at the House of Labour Wednesday. He added that it was disappointing that as the country celebrates 43 years of Independence, the government would not force the owner or officials at the resort to meet with the union as mandated by law.
Ferguson claimed that despite assurances from Prime Minister Perry Christie, employees at the Cable Beach property are still subjected to the “worst conditions possible”.
According to the attorney, both Labour Director Robert Farquharson and Minister of Labour Shane Gibson have said that they did not have the power to force Sandals’ owner Gordon “Butch” Stewart to meet with the union.
“[If] your son or my son commit one little minor crime they [will be] locked up,” Ferguson said, as he lamented the fact that Mr Stewart appeared to be getting special treatment from the government.
“We have a Minister of Labour responsible for labour and they cannot get this man to come to the Labour Board. So what is happening to the workers of this country? It is a sad commentary,” he said.
“Now if we call a strike tomorrow all of them would be making a whole bunch of noise in this community about [us] trying to destroy this [country]; destroy what?It is so disturbing [that] it is mind-boggling,” he said.
Section 41(1) of the Bahamas Industrial Relations Act notes that all employers should recognise a trade union of which more than 50 per cent of the employees are members.
Moreover, sub-section 41(3) calls for employers who are refusing to recognise a sanctioned union to be prosecuted and, if found guilty of the offence, face a fine not exceeding $5,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or both.
“Now we have eight union officers or thereabout who are in police custody as I speak. [Police] are questioning whether or not they have the right to picket without permit. Well, since when in the Bahamas is a permit required to picket or to demonstrate?”
He claimed that those involved should have been immune to arrest and prosecution under sub-section 37(1) of the act.
The section indicates that any employee or bargaining agent acting on the rights of employees that does anything in “contemplation or furtherance” of a trade dispute shall not be punishable as a crime by any court.
“I am saying this morning that this is a serious matter and we are not going to stop until Sandals does the right thing,” said Ferguson.
He compelled Christie to order Mr Stewart to “sit down and start negotiating an industrial agreement”.
He added: “Is that unreasonable? Is that an unreasonable request when the law dictates that if he fails to do so the government of the Bahamas can institute criminal prosecution against him for failing to do so?”
Ferguson noted that the TUC would now look to garner support for workers at Sandals from various civic groups throughout the country.
He also indicated that the TUC has a strike vote pending at the resort and implored all “right thinking” Bahamians to support their cause once they are mobilised.
In 2011, the BHMAWU secured a ruling by the Privy Council that it be recognised as the bargaining agent for Sandals Royal Bahamian employees.
Despite this however, Sandals has refused to negotiate with BHMAWU, union officials have said.
Following Tuesday’s protest, police took several people into custody at the scene. Three truck drivers were later arraigned in Magistrate’s Court and fined in connection to West Bay Street being blocked off and other offences.
BHMAWU First Vice President Omar Bernard was taken into custody along with another union steward following their appearance on the Real Talk Reloaded radio show on More 94FM on Tuesday afternoon.
It is unclear if the union officials will face any charges.