An Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) stalwart has defended this country’s trade unions and the current leadership of the BLP, following criticisms levelled against them by former Prime Minister Owen Arthur.
The ex-leader spoke out yesterday in a Barbados TODAY interview against a 48-hour ultimatum issued by the Barbados Workers’ Union, the National Union of Public Workers, the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union and the Barbados Union of Teachers to the Freundel Stuart Government to either grant their members relief from the recently hiked National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL) or else.
While calling for cooler heads to prevail, Arthur warned that now was not time for “political theatre or gimmickry” given the enormity of Barbados’ economic problems. He also accused both the trade unions and the Mia Mottley-led Opposition of being openly disrespectful of the Office of the Prime Minister, while suggesting that they would never have approached Errol Barrow, Tom Adams or even Arthur himself in the manner in which they have been recently relating to Stuart.
However, in light of Arthur’s criticism of Mottley’s failed attempt to deliver a letter to Stuart at his Bay Street office back in 2014 at the end of a so-called “White March” against the imposition of a solid waste tax, Sir Richard, who served in the Adams Cabinet from 1981 to 1985 and later under Bernard St John and Arthur, before quitting active politics in 2003, explained that it was possible for a prime minister to leave a Cabinet meeting to accommodate such requests.
“Nobody should be misled about these sorts of things. Prime ministers are often out of the country. The Cabinet goes on and the public business goes on.
“What if he has to step out or even adjourn the Cabinet and says, ‘Look gentlemen, we mustn’t be insensitive. A letter is to be delivered and perhaps we should all have a 15 minute break while I go and receive the letter.’
“That was one way of doing it [but] to make the excuse that Cabinet is going on, that is not a big thing,” Sir Richard told Barbados TODAY in response to Arthur’s latest criticisms of Mottley.
He was equally adamant that this country’s workers could not be ignored while suggesting that Stuart “might have missed the hour” when he reportedly refused to entertain the four trade union leaders when they showed up at Parliament for an audience for him last Tuesday, an allegation the Prime Minister has since denied.
While insisting that Stuart should have made time for the workers’ representatives, Sir Richard also argued that any disrespect being shown was not for the Office of Prime Minister, but to Stuart himself and the way in which he was discharging his duties as head of Government.
With the said, Sir Richard deemed it “significant” that Arthur had not made mention of former Prime Minister Erskine Sandiford (now Sir Lloyd), who, like Stuart, “was in charge at a very difficult time” and in Sir Richard’s estimation was also held “in very low regard”.
“So it was not disrespect of the Office, it was disrespect to the holder or diminished regard for a particular holder,” he told Barbados TODAY, while making it clear that it was the people who determined such matters.
“And all of that depends on perceived performance of the holder of the office in the people’s eyes,” he stressed.
In terms of the stepped up militancy by the trade unions Sir Richard said: “If the unions are to maintain the loyalty of their members, they must be seen to be agitating for some sort of benefit for them. Because after all, it is eight years since they have not had an increase [in pay]. The cost of living has gone up, things have gone up, it is very rough in the country so the union has to be seen to be doing its utmost to retain the commitment of its members.”
He also pointed out that across the world membership in trade unions had declined significantly with “people working at home now and [with the emergence of] all sorts of work [such] that people don’t need unions again.
“So to hold on to their membership they have to be seen to be vigorously agitating for the benefits that they are seeking.”
On the other side of the coin, Sir Richard said “Government is understandably concerned about the very desperate state of the economy and the fact that a closure and the loss of a day of work may add to the bad image which we have developed, both in the eyes of local investors and foreign”.
In that context, he warned that there were no simple answers to the questions of “what next, and how does Barbados get out of the deep hole it currently is
With the threat of national shutdown currenlty hanging over the country, he also cautioned that the island’s problems were more fundamental than “a withholding of labour in the public sector for a day”.
However, the BLP stalwart was of the view that “a change of Government, as happened when the Sandiford administration went out of office . . . will lead to an almost dramatic restoration of confidence in Barbados, both at home and abroad. And that would be the atmosphere in which, with the right measures, and given as period of
about two years, we may be able to effect a turnaround in this economy”.
Sir Richard, who is one the two trustees of the BLP and a member of the Opposition party’s National Council, emphasized that while the confidence factor was not easily quantifiable it was critically important because “foreign investors will come who have an interest of Barbados . . . and locals who have so many millions in the bank will feel free to spend money”.