The March for Relief staged by trade unions last Tuesday as a protest against austerity measures in last month’s 2017 Budget and to press their case for a tax ease, was the hot topic of public discussion this week.
The discussion, in fact, started before the event even took place. An estimated 400 persons took part in the march which was dismissively compared in one instance to a Sunday fun walk.
Weighing on the subject over the weekend, outspoken Minister of Industry, International Business, Commerce and Small Business Development, Donville Inniss, dismissed the protest as “a walk to burn calories”.
“A march or a walk by union leaders from Queen’s Park to Parliament in an aim to lose some weight or to burn calories is not absolutely necessary for Government to hear the views of the union. The unions and the Government have been in constant dialogue as far as I know,” Inniss said, drawing criticism from some union leaders as well as some Barbados TODAY readers.
One commenter suggested the only loss the public was having, was in relation to confidence in the present government’s ability to lead. “The government is being unreasonable in its application of an 8% increase in taxes to the (National Social Responsibility) Levy. At least, it could ease the burden on businesses and meet the request of the Union by halving the burden.
“Sadly, the Prime Minister very adroitly stated that it was better to have the rise in taxes than for people to lose their jobs. How naive in actuality is this statement when, in fact, they stand to lose their jobs either way!! Expect an increase in crime and a country plummeting out of control.”
Other readers wanted the unions to take a tougher stance against the government. “The unions have the power to bring down the government if they want. Marching for one day is a waste of time. The unions need to shut down the sea port and the airport for at least 10 days straight.”
However, the threat of a national shutdown still looms after the President of the National Union of Public Workers, Akanni McDowall, reported that Prime Minister Freundel Stuart had refused to meet with him and three other trade union leaders, advising them through a police officer that he was prepared to meet just one union leader. This was during the march.
“We tried to deliver the letter to the Prime Minister first as a sign of respect. He sent an officer to us saying that he would allow the letter to be delivered but only by one leader. All of us said no. We were going to stay together. It is either that the Prime Minister accepts that all four leaders would have to deliver the letter or we would just leave the letter with the reception,” McDowall reported.
However, Stuart denied that he refused to meet with trade union leaders, 24 hours after the accusation was made against him. In a statement released by the Barbados Government Information Service (BGIS) on Wednesday, Stuart said he was expecting one person to deliver the letter to him at Parliament, but when told that all the leaders wanted to be present, he agreed and waited for them to be shown to his office. He assumed that this message was delivered to them.
In a surprising twist, former Prime Minister Owen Arthur came to Stuart’s defense. He told Barbados TODAY he “fully respected” and supported Stuart’s stance in the matter, while describing the unions’ effort to get urgent tax relief as “misguided” and “totally out of order”.
Though making it clear that he was neither defending Stuart nor the failed economic policies of the Democratic Labour Party Government, Arthur contended that the Office of the Prime Minister was being disrespected in a way that would not have been tolerated by him, and certainly not by his predecessors Errol Barrow or Tom Adams, whose tongues “would have been sharpened on both sides”.
“I suspect quite frankly that I would not have been as courteous as Stuart . . . and I have known all the other prime ministers and I know how forceful they were, and I cannot imagine any delegation turning up at Parliament on a Tuesday and seeking to have that kind of audience on that kind of subject with let’s say, an Errol Barrow or a Tom Adams and expect to be treated with even decorum,” he said.
Arthur’s comments drew mixed reaction from readers. One said: “While I agree totally with Mr. Arthur’s sentiments that cooler heads must prevail, I am also amazed at his seeming naivety regarding the willingness of the [prime minister] to enter into dialogue with the trade unions. Mr Stuart has stoutly refused even to entertain or even listen to virtually anyone with differing views concerning how to address economic issues.”
Some readers were not in total agreement and suggested that it is a different era which calls for a different style of leadership. “It is exactly this type of arrogance that caused the electorate to reject you, Owen. You keep talking about what Barrow and Tom would or would not have done but they operated in an environment where the masses were generally uneducated. The problem with you and this present PM is that your predecessors educated us but yet you expect us to sit back and not speak, sit back and take whatever is handed to us.”