Minister of Labour Dr Esther Byer-Suckoo has confirmed that immigration officers could have their pay docked for protesting the environmental conditions at their Careenage House, Wharf Road, The City headquarters.
Byer-Suckoo said the Operational Health and Safety Act, which the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) said empowers the officers to pursue protest action to press
for healthy working conditions, may not shield the workers after all.
She therefore called on the union to reconsider its endorsement of the officers’ decision to work half day until their relocation, possibly in March.
At issue is the repeated postponement of the relocation of the officers from the building, which was condemned back in 2011, to new offices at the Barbados Tourism Investment Inc (BTI) car park on Princess Alice Highway.
After Chief Immigration Officer Wayne Marshall wrote to the protesting officers stating that they were in breach of Section 15 (1) of the Code of Conduct and Ethics (Second Schedule) of the Public Service Act, and could have their salaries docked, the NUPW wrote to Marshall reminding him that Section 104 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act made it clear that “where during the course of employment there is sufficient evidence to indicate that an employee’s health and safety are in imminent danger, that employee may refuse to carry out the tasks assigned to him or her pending consultation with their safety committee, trade union, staff association or the Chief Labour Officer”.
However, Byer-Suckoo yesterday argued that the NUPW might be applying a loose interpretation of the Act by encouraging the officers to work for only half a day, every day.
“Section 104 is not to be cited as candidly as that because there is a process by which it must be applied,” the minister told Barbados TODAY, after delivering remarks to bring to a close a customer service training programme for staff of Ocean 2 Resort and Residences at Dover, Christ Church.
“Before a person can say that they are not coming in to work this morning because the building is unsafe, there are certain procedures that have to be followed. It must first be established that the building is indeed unsafe and it poses a threat. What I do know is that Government is working hard to ensure that the new headquarters are ready. The process should also involve consultation with the Safety and Health Department which comes under my ministry,” she added.
Back in November 2016, on the very day the minister charged with responsibility for the Immigration Department Senator Darcy Boyce had announced that the department would be moving in June of 2017, Barbados TODAY was shown photographs that revealed decayed, filthy mold and fungus-infested building in which the officers were made to work.
Boyce had admitted at the time that the building was in desperate need of repair, while one employee had described in graphic detail, how mold had infested the employee toilets, causing much worry among staff.
“They had an issue where they found mold growing in the toilet, in the receptacles in the female bathroom, so now female members of staff are bringing their own toilet paper,” said the employee, who had said then that one particular vault was so badly overtaken by mold that staff were referring to it as the Green Room, and “nobody don’t go in there, they have it locked off”.
Meantime, after first advising the officers that they would have moved to new headquarters by November 2016, Government has given at least five completion dates, according to the NUPW, the latest of which is March of this year.
Byer-Suckoo today refused to address the issue of the repeated delays, choosing instead to accuse the union of failing to follow the protocols under the Act, and not exhausting all options to bring about temporary relief.
“Under Section 104 a concern is first raised about the building and a safety committee must then be established. It is only after one is satisfied that there has been no effort to address the matter or someone in authority has to proclaim that this is indeed dangerous. The Operational Health and Safety Act anticipates there is continual consultation in this process. Maybe we can’t immediately provide new accommodation immediately, but perhaps we can provide some short-term solution in the interim,” she stressed.
The NUPW has warned that the threat of a pay cut, which came in the form of an internal memo, could lead to more serious action by the officers.
In fact, the union was scheduled to meet the officers on Thursday to determine their next move.