After over five hours of talks, no resolution has been reached between Government and this country’s trade unions on contentious matters arising out of last month’s Budget presentation by Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler.
In fact, top officials of the union emerged tonight from a meeting at Government Headquarters, chaired by Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and including Sinckler and other key officials, telling reporters that industrial action could still be on the cards, if Government proceeds with implementation of its “harsh” $542 million austerity package – which is aimed at erasing its $537.6 million deficit.
The unions have been pressing for either some form of coping mechanism for public workers or a full repeal of the controversial National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL), which is to raised from two per cent to a whopping ten per cent come July 1.
“I am very unhappy. We went into the negotiations with two strong positions . . . [but] neither of those two positions were given so therefore we are of the opinion that the union should do whatever is necessary to make sure that our objectives are met,” President of the National Union of Public Workers Akanni McDowall told reporters shortly after emerging from the 3 p.m. talks just before 9 p.m.
While maintaining that such accommodation was immediately necessary, McDowall, who was flanked by General Secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) Toni Moore, President of the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union Mary Redman and other union officials, said he was somewhat comforted by the fact that an undertaking was given by Government to resume pay negotiations with the workers’ representatives.
“In all fairness to the minister [Sinckler] and the Prime Minister they tried to give some sort of indication that they would try to expedite salary negotiations and we appreciated that . . . . Nonetheless, there is a saying that goes, ‘while the grass is growing the horse is starving’, so we needed something a little bit more immediate.
“Unfortunately, we were unable to get that and I have to go back to the membership to see what we need to do going forward,” the NUPW top official said.
Asked specifically if this meant industrial, both he and Moore responded in unison, saying, “Whatever is needed.”
Earlier this week, Government announced that the NSRL would not be applied to about 300 items contained in its so called basic basket of goods, but the NUPW and the BWU have both been calling for a repeal of the levy on the grounds that it will only make life harder for their members, who have not benefited from a salary increase in nine years.
However, as recent as today, Sinckler defended his May 30 Budget announcements, including a two per cent tax on foreign exchange transactions – which also takes effect on July 1 – as well as increased levies on petrol and diesel.
Delivering the ruling Democratic Labour Party’s (DLP) lunchtime lecture at party headquarters on Friday, the Minister of Finance said he was standing firmly by his May 30th Budget — a position which he repeated tonight, while promising that once the domestic economic situation improves, workers could expect to receive their just deserts.
As for the threat of strike action that continues to hang over Government’s operations, Sinckler said: “I’m not in charge of industrial action. You can ask them [unions] about that, but it would certainly be my hope that no such thing occurs.”
He also confirmed that Government was amenable to re-opening salary negotiations.
And amid concerns expressed by the unions that even though Government’s basket of goods would be NSRL free, the cost of producing the items was still likely to increase, Sinckler said he was committed to protecting the most vulnerable in society.