As an all-out strike looms over the public service, two Cabinet ministers in the Freundel Stuart administration are warning that the already ailing Barbados economy cannot afford such a blow right now.
Last night, President of the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) Akanni McDowall announced, following a prayer session at the union’s Dalkeith Road, St Michael headquarters, that “all gloves” were off and that full-blown protests would soon follow over Government’s failure to conclude salary and other pay negotiations with the union.
With general elections due to be held here by the middle of the year, the union had given Government until January 15 to respond to its pay demands, which include a 23 per cent pay hike and a $60 million lump sum payment asof a “coping subsidy” for the workers following recent increases in the cost of living.
However, that deadline passed yesterday without any response from the Democratic Labour Party administration, whose earlier offer of a $49 million lump sum was immediately rejected by the union.
Without saying precisely when or what form its action would take, the NUPW is therefore preparing to fully flex its muscles over the issue, with McDowall suggesting that its sister unions would also be involved.
However, speaking to Barbados TODAY outside Parliament this morning, Minister of Housing and Lands Denis Kellman suggested that not only was the timing bad, but that the union and its officials were acting in a selfish manner, given the current economic and social challenges facing the country.
“When one considers the timing of it, it is obvious that they do not care about the tourism season, it is obvious that they do not care about what is going on the south coast [with the sewage overflows] and it is obvious that they are thinking about self and not country,” Kellman said, adding that he could not blame the workers because it was their union’s decision.
The Member of Parliament for St Lucy also cautioned that “it is better to have a sheep’s head a day, than to lose everything”, while explaining that in the face of economic difficulty, Government’s immediate priority was to ensure that workers did not lose their jobs.
“You know sometimes people might make an error by going for a payout because it looks big, but in one year’s time, they suddenly realize the payout is less than their salaries for a year and they could be working for ten or 15 years, so it’s judgmental,” he stressed.
Amid declining foreign reserves which plunged to $550 million last September, as well as over $100 million in foreign debt and interest payments due in the final quarter, Kellman pointed out that while the union’s role was to represent its interests, Government’s responsibility was to take care of the entire country.
“Unlike them, we have to be realistic and we have to be appreciative of the economic situation . . . and if you go back to 2001 you will see that this economic crisis started long before 2008/2009. There was actually a resolution in 2001 dealing with the economic crisis which was brought to Parliament. If some of us want to pretend that we are not aware of what is happening in the country and in the world, I am very sorry,” Kellman added.
His Cabinet colleague Donville Inniss also expressed concern about the ability and capacity of the country to withstand the impact of an all-out strike across the Government sector at this time.
“This economy can well do without any industrial action. We already have the challenges of inadequate levels of productivity in Barbados . . . and in any disruption . . . there are no winners,” said Inniss, who is the minister of Commerce, Industry and Small Business Development.
He said while he heard the cries of workers for a salary increase, they had to consider Government’s ability to pay at the end of the day.
“I hear and I empathize with the perspective of the unions and the workers for salaries increase . . . [ but] there are some things you cannot run away from,” Inniss said, adding that “it must be measured against the ability of the state to pay and the consequences [for] the national economy”.
The Minister of Commerce, who was also speaking outside Parliament, said he was concerned about the impact any strike would have on the business sector, even as he urged all parties to return to the bargaining table in order to quickly resolve the outstanding issues. [email protected]