The Ministry of Education and the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU) are heading for a legal showdown after teachers’ salaries were docked for participating in a protest march back in April.
A preemptive strike last week by the BSTU failed to achieve the desired result, as it tried to bar the Ronald Jones-led ministry from cutting its members’ pay.
An injunction filed last Thursday could not be heard on Friday as expected because Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education June Chandler was not served until late Friday.
By the time the hearing was held today before Justice Pamela Beckles the teachers’ pay had already been docked, prompting the union to sue Government in an attempt to have their pay restored, according to BSTU President Mary Redman.
“It was only just Wednesday last week that we heard that there were plans afoot and we very quickly went into action in an attempt to get the injunction filed and stop the process, but the time frame given was very small, a very short period in which we had to act,” Redman said, adding that her members were “extremely angry and frustrated” over the ministry’s decision.
Following a 20-minute hearing, which got underway at 11:30 a.m., the union’s attorney Gregory Nicholls announced that both parties had agreed to expedite the hearing of the substantive matter, with a pre-trial review set for October 18.
“What the parties have agreed is that the matter not being one of great factual contention, meant that we would expedite the process and go straight to trial. The court has set dates for the filing of submissions and the filing of further affidavit evidence for the pre-trial review date on October 18. As you would appreciate the court goes on vacation in August, so we lose that month,” Nicholls said.
The attorney-at-law, who also represents the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT) in a similar matter which dates back two years, argued that the abatement of the teachers’ pay was a breach of their constitutional rights.
He also charged that the teachers were denied due process, as disciplinary action was effectively taken without first “charging [and] finding the educators guilty of being absent without a reasonable explanation.
“The challenge is predicated on the basis that the Permanent Secretary does not have the authority in law to abate salaries of teachers,” the attorney told journalists.
Nicholls argued that by docking the teachers’ pay the ministry had taken disciplinary action against them, something he said only the Governor General, acting on the advice of the Public Service Commission, had the legal authority to do.
“This is enshrined in the Constitution of Barbados and therefore the Constitution of Barbados being supreme law, any process that does not have the Governor General acting on the advice of the [Public] Service Commission is in breach of the constitutional provisions.”
Stopping short of describing the ministry’s action as sneaky, Nicholls lamented that the teachers were not formally told that their salaries would be docked, stressing that “it was in poor taste”.
“To abate salaries without teachers knowing, leaving them to discover what happened only after they were paid, is really procedurally unfair because most of them would have gotten permission from their respective principals,” he maintained.
After some 200 members of the 500-strong BSTU took to the streets on April 5 in what they had dubbed a March of Respect to press their case for payment to correct school-based assessment (SBA) projects administered by the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), Jones had told a Democratic Labour Party meeting at the George Lamming Primary School on April 9 that the adage of “no work, no pay” applied to the union’s march during school hours – a suggestion that their pay should be docked.
The comment had angered Redman who fired back at the union’s annual general meeting two days later, telling Jones in a fiery address that it would take more than threats of docked pay to stop teachers from standing up for their rights.
It was at that meeting that she also said the teachers would fight tooth and nail against any attempts to tamper with their salaries.
Jones today sought to distance himself from the issue, telling Barbados TODAY he was unaware of the docking of the teachers’ pay.
“I don’t know anything about that. It is not something the Minister of Education is involved with. I am a policymaker; I am not the individual who deals with the docking of pay. A minister can’t dock anybody’s pay or recommend that anybody’s pay be docked. That is not at all the remit of the minister.
“There are rules which are caught up in the Public Service Act and a minister can’t be involved or engaged in docking anybody’s pay. So I am not aware of it,” he emphasized.