Political economist Don Marshall has come out strongly against the current sick-out by this island’s four major trade unions, suggesting today that the action, aimed at forcing the Freundel Stuart administration to roll back recently announced austerity measures, was both misguided and unwise.
Speaking on local radio this morning, Marshall, the head of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES), also warned the unions about setting a dangerous industrial relations precedent, as he called on them to stop pressuring Government about tax matters and to focus on wages.
“I don’t dismiss their right to protest or anybody’s right to register dissatisfaction with any policy measure. But I’m saying that if you are really going to tackle the crises that labour faces in Barbados, then you have to be tackling the wage stagnation that we have known since 2008/2009, and get back to the drawing board on a wage increase at least for the period between 2009 to 12, so that we begin to address alleviating the stresses on the pockets and households,” Marshall said.
His comments came against the backdrop of stalled wage negotiations between Government and the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), which has been demanding a 23 per cent pay hike for its members.
The Barbados Workers’ Union has also been awaiting word on its demand for a 15 per cent pay hike since last year, but all they have been able to garner so far is a promise by Government that it would return to the bargaining table.
The latest such indication came during meeting last month at Government Headquarters, chaired by Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and including Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler and other key officials, at which Government agreed that it would try to expedite salary negotiations.
However, since then no date has been set, with Marshall pointing out that the country had for much of the past decade been grappling with the ill-effects of a global recession.
Nonetheless, he said, Government, amid reports of two per cent economic growth last year, was able to arrive at a wage settlement in its dispute with unionized workers at Grantley Adams International Airport, while maintaining that the unions must hold Government’s feet to the fire in terms of their wage demands for the wider public sector. “All the unions had to do was to take queue from that [and] from the restoration of the ten per cent [that was taken from parliamentarians’ salaries at the height of austerity] and say, ‘we want a negotiation on the question of wages and salaries,’” Marshall said, while insisting that any industrial action by the unions must be based on the standstill in wage negotiations with Government.
“It cannot be about trying to give the Government an ultimatum to reduce a particular levy from ‘x’ per cent to ‘x’ per cent. I don’t agree with that and I think it is a dangerous precedent,” he said, explaining that, “I don’t like the way in which it sets up the next Government, whoever wins the next election.
“You shouldn’t be setting up the next Government to thumb up its nose at the electorate on the question of a wage increase, or how it arranges its tax policy,” he said, while stressing that governments should be free to determine tax policy as they deem fit while addressing the question of wage negotiations as a way of providing some relief to citizens.
Marshall also suggested that if it could be proven that Government was simply ignoring the workers’ representatives on the issue of a wage increase “then we should be having a summer of discontent.
“If you are telling me that the unions have been seeking to have a wage increase at whatever percentage and Government’s response to them has been, ‘well there can’t be no wage increase whatsoever’, then my thing is, that’s when you have to have your industrial action.
“That’s when you have to have it, because restoration has to be linked to something and you link to what they claim to be a situation where the situation has moderately improved,” the political economist said while bitterly complaining that the unions were currently engaged in “this mock debate about reducing a levy from ten per cent to five per cent or else”, as he warned them not to “betray the historical mission of workers by engaging them in a struggle to have a levy reduced when the actual struggle is to address a nine year hiatus in wage and salary increases.
“That is the real debate,” he stressed.