So it begins. The discussion about whether the unions are right to press for a salary increase now is underway. Already we have a senior Government minister labeling the ‘young’ union leaders as aggressive and seeking to dismiss them.
Permit me a counterpoint on the current Government’s discomfort with youth empowerment before we examine the call for a pay increase by the National Union of Pubic Workers (NUPW). This current administration was the first in the history of the political process in Barbados to create a manifesto specifically for youth as one of the major stakeholders in their election victory of 2008.
Nine years later, the said administration is at pains to paint the picture of Barbadian youth as incapable of having places at the tables of national discourse as a serious shareholder. I find myself wondering about this turn of policy. I find myself wondering if the Democratic Labour Party’s vision and engagement of the youth is buried in the St. John Church yard with their former political leader.
What could be the investment for a government to be so adamant about rejecting any form of discussion or input from youth? Perhaps these are questions worth pressing the current dispensation for answers to but they are not wholly connected to the discourse about the NUPW’s call for a wage increase. I do not see any ‘youth’ leading trade unions in Barbados. The trade union leaders are about the same age and experience historically as their predecessors and there is nothing spectacular in that regard.
What may seem a serious point of observation initially is sometimes not when context is added to a situation. While the union leaders may be characterized as unreasonable or unpatriotic as the senior minister sought to intimate, it turns into a completely different case once context is added to the scenario.
In 2013, the current administration opted to run a campaign which overlooked the issues of privatization and public sector rationalization which would become critical factors in the five year cycle of government they were trying to secure. In securing the mandate of the people of Barbados, they committed to keeping all civil servants employed and to no privatization of state assets.
Every person who has ever worked in the civil service knows that an increment becomes due to facilitate a pay raise after a certain number of years. This agreement is one of the cornerstones between the union and the government as stakeholders in the process of governance on the Island. Therefore, unless a party committing to keeping every civil service employee engaged has varied the expectation upfront, it is reasonable for workers to expect that the status quo remains the same.
Additionally Barbadians were being fed a steady diet of improvements in the economy, which turned the corner at least three major times in the space of the last three years. There was not any admission before the last three week period that there was serious trouble in the economic fortunes of Barbados. Even though some admission of difficulty has been forthcoming, there still is no dollar figure of the exact position.
Our Prime Minister is solemnly vowing that there will be no devaluation or engagement of the International Monetary Fund. Given all this context then, why would the union not feel justified in seeking an increase for its workers who have been holding strain for the last eight years?
As if all that was playing out in the practical realm was not enough, even in the realm of symbolism the Government sent what could be considered as the clearest indication that the union should press for increases for their workers. Where the Government, after one of its taxation deluges, had cut the salaries of parliamentarians and senior civil servants by 10% as a gesture of solidarity, they reinstated the funds at a sitting of Parliament recently.
The Government also left the size of the Cabinet and the associated posts uncut in any form or fashion. There is a level of goodwill on the part of the trade union movement in Barbados and the Commonwealth Caribbean which facilitates the partnership between the trade union and the government. The relationship is largely governed by volunteer ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ which keep both parties ‘looking good’ among their shared major stakeholders – the working masses.
The governments keep the trade unions ‘looking good’ and vice versa and this relative stability makes governance more painless. However, when there are cases of extreme and continuous excess by the government, the trade unions stand to lose their credibility and they lose it relatively quickly if they do nothing.
When the current administration asked the NUPW to help it through its retrenchment exercise in 2015, the union acceded. This, however, was not without significant fallout to the Union. Workers felt as though their representatives were ‘selling them out’. Membership and faith in the union dipped and the perception of the unions and their importance faced real peril.
The Government, in the way it chose to manage its election campaign of 2013 and its subsequent management of the country, has created a political problem. Prof. George Belle, political scientist and former Dean of the Faculty of Management and Political Science at the University of the West Indies, was the first to indicate this some three years ago. As the saga unfolds, I want to agree and expand the notion as what is seen as the root of that political crisis.
When Prof. Belle first spoke, he related his comments to the one seat majority which the Government had won by, leaving it almost powerless to make any real political or parliamentary decisions. With developments on the Opposition side of the House of Assembly, which saw two members resigning, it seemed as though the DLP administration’s problems had been solved.
However, it was not just the tight rope of electoral seats which has bound this Government in a position of non-action. The promises about employment which they made in 2013 campaigning have also contributed to the political problem the Government created. The President of the NUPW and indeed, any other trade union in Barbados, cannot continue to make the Government of Barbados ‘look good’ at the expense of the very survival of their institution.
If the Government has realized that the basis of its mandate is no longer workable, it is time for a new mandate. It cannot expect to infect the trade union movement with the political cancer now quickly spreading across its foot print. When this is considered, NUPW President Akanni McDowall has no choice but to press for a salary increase for his workers. He would also be smart to not accept government downsizing as a condition of the increase.
Why should he be responsible for letting the Government off its own sword? The simple fact is that the Government has a political problem on its hands quite apart from the economic disaster it also presides over. It is not McDowall or the ‘young trade unionists’ who are being greedy and unpatriotic with their demand for a salary increase. In my view, it is the Democratic Labour Party administration which is doing all in its power to ensure that it does not lose power in this country. Such is perverse and detrimental to Barbados.
There is a final element I want to put on the table for all our consideration. Having an indefinite wage freeze in the public sector is a breeding ground for corruption to become more engrained and characteristic in the administration of a country. Where workers struggle to get by from month to month and citizens look for ways around diminishing resources, help-each-other schemes manifest. It is these types of changes in the social complexion of a country which explain what happened in Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica more than a simple monetary devaluation in itself.
Like the economic problems in Barbados, the longer we take to fix the political problems, the more we destabilize the social fabric of Barbados. Sometimes a tear in fabric can be darned – others times, the entire garment is lost.
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communication at the University of the West Indies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)