The Freundel Stuart administration has been ordered by the High Court to pay yet-to-be-determined damages to seven employees of the state-owned Barbados Investment and Development Corporation (BIDC) who were forced into early retirement in August 2015.
The decision was handed down this afternoon in the Number 5 Supreme Court by Madame Justice Jacqueline Cornelius, nearly two years after she heard submissions in early March 2016, after which she had promised to issue a ruling at the end of that month.
In her 50-page judgment delivered in the presence of the employees and top officials of their bargaining agent, the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), including its president, Akanni McDowall, and Deputy General Secretary Delcia Burke, Cornelius ruled that the decision by the BIDC to force the workers, who had all reached age 60, into compulsory retirement was unlawful, null, void and of no legal effect.
She also declared that the decision of the accountant general, the officers of the Treasury Department, the auditor general and other public officers and Government authorities to process and calculate or purport to process and calculate the gratuity and pensions due to the claimants, was also unlawful, null, void and of no legal effect.
As part of a series of instructions, the judged ordered “an award of damages equivalent to the pecuniary loss [salaries due since 2015] occasioned by the unlawful administrative act and/or omissions on the part of the defendants”.
She advised attorneys on both sides that they had 28 days within which to file written submissions and affidavits regarding details of the damages, including interests.
“I will hear submissions as to the quantum of costs in the substantive case, and submissions on costs on the application of the attorney general who was struck out as a party during the proceedings,” she said.
After an initial request for a stay of the judge’s decision, all parties agreed that the claimants should be paid their pensions without delay.
“To God be the glory,” was all David Parris, the first claimant, would say after the decision.
However, McDowall said he was “extremely, extremely, extremely happy for those workers” who were among 13 employees, ten of whom were over 60, forced to retire by the BIDC. The remaining six did not join the lawsuit against their former employer.
“I think this decision here today would have brought some measure of closure for them. This would have been going on since 2015 and clearly it would have been very difficult for them to cope with the situation, having not received a decision from the court,” McDowall told journalists.
Stressing that today was a very good day for him and the labour movement in Barbados, the union leader said the decision also vindicated the NUPW’s decision to fight to the end for the workers’ rights.
“What that does for us too as a union, is that it shows us we need to support those workers who have been affected by employers who refuse to protect their rights, and it means we must do whatever is necessary to make sure that the rights of workers are protected.”
The NUPW, with the support of the other trade unions, organized a march in July 2015 to which thousands of Government workers responded in a bid to press the BIDC to withdraw retirement letters to the workers.
Back then, McDowall had vowed that the union would not back down from its demands to either rehire the workers or pay them until they reach age 67, both of which the state agency had dismissed.
Flanked by senior union officers, the NUPW boss today said: “If we had to do it all over again, we would do it.”
Today’s ruling was consistent with what the union had requested during the court hearing in March 2016, at which lead attorney Gregory Nicholls had argued that the BIDC had acted illegally.
Nicholls had maintained back then that the BIDC sent home the workers without considering their individual circumstances and without consulting with them, and that the state agency had withheld evidence regarding the real reason for sending home the employees, pointing out that neither in its correspondence with the workers nor the NUPW had the corporation attributed financial constraints to the forced retirement of its staff.
Therefore, he had sought a declaration that the retirements were null and void; an order to quash the decision and damages equivalent to the pecuniary loss brought on by the “unlawful” decision to retire the workers.
His reaction today was similar to that of the union and the workers.
“The claimants have been vindicated in their strident and steadfastness,” he contended.
Making reference to one of the workers who had been hospitalized when the decision was made to retire her, Nicholls said while he could not specify a date for the payout to start, he was happy that his clients could rest in the knowledge that for the first Christmas in two years, justice had been done.