The numbers were small, but the estimated 400 members of the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU), the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT), the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) and the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) who took to the streets of The City today sent a powerful message to the Freundel Stuart administration.
From Queen’s Park, where the walk began, to Independence Square, where it ended, their voices could be heard loudly and clearly.
“No more taxes,” they chanted, punctuating their singing of the unions’ song, Solidarity Forever.
“The taxes killing we,” they shouted as they crossed Bridge Street onto the Swing Bridge.
Many came dressed in T-shirts – some blue, some red, some white – while others, on a break from work, were dressed in their uniforms.
Later, they would shout “up de thing”, as they were told Government had 48 hours to come up with a favourable response to their demands or face the consequences. It was a clear sign they were ready to turn up the pressure on the administration.
The festive atmosphere belied their anger with Government over the vexing National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL) on which Stuart and Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler have refused to budge.
“When you look around, roads bad, social services poor, the hospital things down, things in the supermarkets high . . . so I have to march . . . because injustice going on,” said a public servant who requested anonymity.
Sinckler announced in his May 30 Budget that the levy, introduced at two per cent last September to finance health care and sanitation services, would rise to ten per cent effective July 1.
Along with the introduction of a two per cent tax on foreign exchange transactions and increases in the duties on petrol, the minister is hoping the measures will raise $540 million to help close a gaping deficit.
However, the unions are contending that their members cannot carry any more burdens, and have unsuccessfully tried to get the administration to reduce the levy to five per cent. They had initially demanded that it be rescinded altogether, or they be given a coping subsidy.
Retired public servant Colin Williams, who joined the march, said he had a tough time coping.
“This gang of politicians is not getting on very decent . . . . This is a bad Government, and this a political party that is displaying bad manners to the poor,” said Williams who spent 36 years in the public sector.
“I get pension and if I wasn’t careful all those pension would be spent within a day or two days. You have people in this country getting $200 a week in 2017, what can they buy? Some pay rent, some have a child, some got laid off. What are you telling me that people shouldn’t demonstrate? Man move,” the outraged senior citizen said in reference to criticisms of the march by administration officials, including Minister of Commerce Donville Inniss, who on Saturday described it as nothing more than a weight loss exercise.
The National Organization of Women (NOW) is not affiliated with any of the trade unions, but its members joined the rally.
NOW Public Relations Officer Marsha Hinds-Layne said women, many of them single mothers, were being affected by the increased taxation.
“As the tax measures have been implemented over the last couple of years, we find that these mothers have been affected at every level of taxation. We are going in the back to school period . . . all of that is going to be affected by the NSRL,” she said.
Stuart had initially refused to see all four labour leaders involved in the protest, sending a police officer to advise that he would see only one.
They wanted to deliver a letter to the Prime Minister, with their demands for a reprieve from the levy, and they were adamant that Stuart must meet all four of them.
The Prime Minister later changed his mind, but the union leaders, who had met with Opposition Mia Mottley by then, said it was too late, and they left the letter at reception.
Kathyanne Neblett, a private sector employee, went to the march during her lunch break, was disappointed with Stuart and at the turnout.
“Unless Barbadians themselves who are members of the union actually get up and do something about it, all of these marches are just going to be a waste of time. Unless we are serious about this thing we are going to be at this all the time,” Neblett said.
“If every time they hold a march and the numbers keep decreasing instead of increasing and people getting fed up walking around and nothing is happening, we need to do something more, stand for what it is you believe in, not just lip service.”
The walk was led by BWU General Secretary Toni Moore, NUPW President Akanni McDowall, BUT President Pedro Shepherd and BSTU President Mary Redman. The latter had to be assisted because she tore ligaments in her left ankle in Queen’s Park, when the area on which she stepped after completing her presentation gave way. She now wears a brace and must use crutches for the next three weeks or so.
Despite Neblett’s concerns about the turnout, Moore was pretty pleased, telling Barbados TODAY it was much better than anticipated.
“We have not been extending anything to our wider constituents, but we have been urging our shop stewards to share the word with them of what we are doing. So, this morning’s effort was to see how many of our shop stewards would have, without us having to write permission for them to be absent, who could take their breaks and so on, or, if they have off days, to come and join us. We are more than heartened with the response and it suggests to us, that our people are ready,” Moore said.