That was the stinging response from the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) to comments today by Minister of the Environment and Drainage Dr Denis Lowe that Government did not owe retrenched National Conservation Commission (NCC) workers a single thing.
“This is scandalous. How could he say something like that?” NUPW President Akanni McDowall told Barbados TODAY soon after Lowe had adopted the emphatic position in the wake of concerns raised by frustrated current workers and the union that the state agency had hired new workers, none of whom was among those severed three years ago.
Addressing the media following an NCC meeting at Almond Bay Caterers in Hastings, Christ Church Wednesday afternoon at which 103 workers were appointed, Lowe made it clear that the NCC’s duty of care to the dismissed workers had ended when they received severance payments awarded by the Employment Rights Tribunal last July.
The tribunal, headed by Hal Gollop, QC, had ruled that the workers were unfairly dismissed, and had ordered compensation equivalent to 52 weeks’ wages.
In addition, Government had agreed that the retrenched workers would be given first preference for any future vacancies at the statutory body, according to the NUPW.
However, Lowe contended that this was not the case, stressing that all vacancies at the state agency were now fair game for anyone who submitted an application.
“Let me be clear in saying that unlike the claim that is being made, the NCC has no obligation to anybody who has not applied or who would not apply, and that retrenchment is not a condition for engagement with the NCC. What we will do is give full consideration to anyone who expresses an interest in working with the NCC,” the minister insisted.
“We have satisfied all of our obligations with the retrenched workers, many of them have gone on with their lives. We have assisted wherever we could with letters of recommendation and we are going to continue to stay focused on what we need to do relative to continuing to advance the work of the National Conservation Commission,” Lowe added.
Multiple sources had told Barbados TODAY on Monday that the agency, which had fired some 200 workers in April 2014 as part of Government’s cost-saving retrenchment programme, had hired 170 new workers in recent weeks, many from Lowe’s Christ Church East constituency.
NCC General Manager Keith Neblett Tuesday dismissed the figure quoted as “ludicrous, erroneous and inaccurate”, telling Barbados TODAY that seven new lifeguards had been appointed this month.
However, Neblett said the retrenchment had affected the agency’s ability to carry out its functions, and suggested that new people would be brought in. But he did not say if any of those hired had indeed come from Lowe’s constituency.
Asked Wednesday whether his constituents were the ones being hired, the minister said the appointment process did not include the parishes from which potential employees came, but he would not have a problem if the people of Christ Church East benefitted from the employment opportunities.
“I did not check to see if they were all from Christ Church East or St Thomas or St Joseph as might have been the case back in 2000. The commission’s job was to make sure that they met the eligibility requirement . . . but if they are from my constituency I am very happy,” Lowe said.
The minister’s comment angered McDowall, who insisted that “when the workers were retrenched there was an agreement with the Government that those workers would first be considered if any job opportunities would later arise within the NCC”.
The union president also claimed that the retrenchment exercise had such profound impact on the workers that it had led to some unfortunate consequences.
“This minister has no empathy. We have had reports of members going to the mental [Psychiatric Hospital] because they could not pay their mortgages. We have had one member that lost their job in that retrenchment effort and they later committed suicide. We can’t say for sure that these things were as a direct result of their dismissal, but the point remains that people are seriously hurting because of this,” McDowall said.