The leadership of the Private Sector Association and the island’s four leading trade unions – Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU), National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT) and Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU) – have good reason to feel satisfied tonight.
The massive turn-out earlier today for their jointly organized march through the streets of Bridgetown, represented a strong public endorsement of their call on the Freundel Stuart administration to revisit its highly controversial decision to increase the National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL) by 400 per cent with effect from July 1.
Citing increased hardship for their members in an economy far from performing at its best, the private sector and four unions called the protest after complaining about their inability to get Prime Minister Stuart to engage the Social Partnership, of which they are part, in sufficient dialogue on the measure, which was announced by Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler in his May 30 austerity Budget.
Speaking on Sunday at a Democratic Labour Party (DLP) event, Mr Stuart harshly criticized the collaboration between the private sector and the unions and made clear that the levy would remain as it is. However, with police estimating that up to 20,000 persons turned up earlier today to support the private sector and unions, it is now left to be seen whether Mr Stuart intends to stick to his guns.
A recent CADRES opinion poll showed Mr Stuart’s popularity, at eight per cent, was at an all-time low for a sitting prime minister. With a general election just a matter of months away, maintaining a hardline stance could actually work to the detriment of Mr Stuart and his DLP.
Even though Mr Stuart may take issue with some aspects of the approach used by the private sector and unions, as Prime Minister, he has a moral duty, as guardian of the national interest, to take the higher road and reach out to the two aggrieved members of the Social Partnership and attempt to come to some kind of understanding which is acceptable to all the parties concerned.
Failure to do so places the future of the Social Partnership, a great gift to Barbados by a previous DLP Government under Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford, at great risk. The reason for establishing the Social Partnership, a governance model adopted by other countries, was to provide a forum where the three leading players in the country and economy – Government, business and labour – could meet to discuss complex issues and achieve a consensus to inform policy making.
The fact that the private sector and trade unions considered it necessary to take to the streets in a protest to draw attention to their grievances and solicit public support, clearly suggests a breakdown in the tripartite arrangement. Repairing the obviously strained relationships is critical going forward and we can think of no better way to initiate this process than to have all parties again back at the bargaining table. The demise of the Social Partnership would be a major tragedy.
As it stands, the ball is effectively in Mr Stuart’s court. The private sector and unions have openly expressed their willingness to engage in dialogue with Government. It is left, therefore, to Mr Stuart to respond. In the national interest, he should seize the opportunity and demonstrate effective leadership on this issue.
In the final analysis, the harsh reality is that correcting the various problems afflicting the economy cannot be achieved single-handedly by Government, even though Mr Stuart has made clear that the Cabinet has exclusive responsibility for policy making. While this is true, the success of any policy ultimately depends on the level of public buy-in, especially from such key stakeholders as business and labour. It is no different with respect to the economy.
The unions and private sector have scored a major victory which has undoubtedly strengthened their hand. Unless our Prime Minister reaches out in a genuine and sincere attempt to heal the rift, today’s march may very well be just the beginning of other protests to come. We hope it does not come to this.