Since 2013, Barbados’ industrial relations climate has been fraught with volatility, and the first five months of 2018 was much of the same.
At the beginning of the year, the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) issued an ultimatum to the Freundel Stuart-led Government to respond to its pay concerns by January 15, or else there would be protests.
When the NUPW met with the Ministry of the Civil Service just the month before, an offer of a $49 million lump sum coping subsidy was put on the table. The union roundly rejected the offer, and instead demanded a $60 million payment which would allow for an across-the-board $2,500 payment for public servants to help them cope with the rising cost of living.
But with the Stuart administration refusing to budge and the deadline passing without a word from Government, the NUPW announced that it would be immediately embarking on a public sector strike. By all accounts, the two-day national shutdown fell flat. Government services reportedly continued to operate normally, despite the NUPW’s call for “two days of protest and resistance”.
The shutdown call also did not gain the support of the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados (CTUSAB) or the island’s oldest trade union, the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU). Since the wage fight began in 2017, the BWU had maintained calls for a 15 per cent increase.
Two months after the failed strike, the Stuart administration halted pay talks with the unions. The position was contained in a letter, dated March 20, 2018, issued by the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of the Civil Service, Alyson Forte.
In it, Forte explained that he had sought an updated mandate from the Prime Minister on the outstanding wages and salaries negotiations, but was directed by Stuart, who was the Minister responsible for the Civil Service, to put a halt to the pay talks.
“I am directed to advise you that the Minister, as authorized under Section 13 (1) (d) of the Public Service Act Cap. 29, and with the advice from the Ministry of Finance, has determined that the prevailing economic conditions do not permit a general increase in the emoluments for public servants, including any one-off payments,” Forte wrote in his letter to the BWU.
The Permanent Secretary also said that he was directed by the Prime Minister that any negotiations with the unions at that stage should focus on non-salary items.
However, while the NUPW was unable to force Government’s hand on the issue of salary increase for public workers, its fight for better working conditions gained significant momentum in the first half of the year.
In January, NUPW General Secretary Roslyn Smith had made it clear that immigration officers would be holding Government’s feet to the fire over promises to move them out of the condemned headquarters on Wharf Road, The City. She warned at the time that the workers had run out of patience, and Government needed to stop dragging its feet on fulfilling its 2016 promise to repurpose the Barbados Tourism Investment Inc. car park building as the new headquarters.
“I am not at all happy with the progress because I thought they would have been a lot closer to completion. There are so many things that need to be finished; there is no part of the project that is 100 per cent completed. I don’t see how they are going to finish all that work in six weeks,” she had said.
Pointing out that the relocation was supposed to have occurred in June 2017, Smith lamented that the moving date then moved to July, then August, “and all kinds of dates we are getting”. After contractors again missed the deadline in March 2018, the NUPW took the decision that immigration officers stationed at Wharf Road would leave work whenever they fell ill. A court action was also threatened on behalf of officers who had fallen ill as a result of the environmental issues associated with the condemned structure. There would be one more missed deadline before officers were able to move into their new home in August.
The NUPW also made a similar demand for workers at the Barbados Supreme Court Complex after staff complained that environmental conditions at the White Park Road building were making them ill. After two weeks of robust and sometimes heated discussions involving the NUPW, court officials and then Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite, the decision was taken to relocate the workers.
Business at the Supreme Court Complex came to an abrupt halt on April 11, as frustrated workers walked out due to the same concerns. At the time, Smith condemned the complex as a “sick building”, explaining that the roof “would have to be changed because mould is dropping down onto the workers”.
“This is a matter where the roof is not a small issue, so it will have to take some time, and it is going to be a high cost to have this building repaired. There are other conditions that are affecting the workers at different levels because, as we know, from the time that this building was erected here they always had environmental issues because of where it is situated,” she said then.
With a change of Government following the historic May 24 general elections, in which the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) won all 30 seats and ousted the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), many had hoped the country’s industrial climate had turned a corner.
However, while tensions cooled between Government and the trade unions, from the moment Prime Minister Mia Mottley announced that Barbados had entered talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a dark cloud of uncertainty, which has yet to dissipate, settled over public sector workers.
In her June 11 mini-Budget, the Prime Minister announced that she was giving civil servants a five per cent wage increase, their first hike in a decade. It was a far cry from the double-digit demand initially made by the unions, and both the NUPW and BWU came in for a lot of criticism for accepting the significantly smaller sum.
But the country got its first hint that job cuts were imminent back in August, following a meeting between a visiting IMF delegation and the NUPW in July. Following the discussions, NUPW president Akanni McDowall hinted that the island’s largest public sector trade union was prepared to accept some job losses as the Mottley-led administration sought to steady the ship in turbulent economic waters.
“We met with the IMF . . . . The discussion was cordial, and we emphasized the point that we were trying to minimize, if not prevent, job losses,” the NUPW president had said at the time. “We indicated to them that we were more concerned about the social aspect of the economic recovery. We told them that the way forward for us was to maintain those social aspects while ensuring that the country gains revenue.”
Three months later, following the IMF’s approval of the Barbados Economic Recovery and Transformation (BERT) programme, Prime Minster Mottley put an end to the speculation. In an address to the nation in October, she disclosed that not more than 1,500 people across the public sector, mostly temporary workers, would be laid off. At the time of the disclosure, Mottley made several promises about how the retrenchment process would go. She said the policy of last-in, first-out will be applied.
Highlighting the problems of other retrenched workers in the past, Mottley also insisted that workers were to receive their severance cheque on their final day on the job
“Above all else, I have insisted, and my Cabinet agrees with me, that the day on which persons receive notice, unlike what has happened before, they must walk home with a cheque, at least dealing with the severance-type payments and indeed the notice and indeed the termination,” she said at the time.
However, the layoffs began in a state of confusion. While some workers received their walking papers, many others were unsure of their employment status as they were only terminated by word of mouth. Some persons were sent home without apparent thought for how particular sections would function. For example, at one stage, the District ‘A’ Magistrates’ Courts were unable to collect fines as most of the cashiers were laid off. Senator, Caswell Franklyn told Barbados TODAY that the situation appeared more like a “rush job to appease the IMF.”
Along with clerks and steno-typists from various sections of central government, the Transport Board, Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, Barbados Water Authority, Urban Development Commission, the Registry and the Ministry of Transport and Works, were among state agencies impacted.
The Prime Minister had also announced that essential services were not to be impacted by the retrenchment, but as recently as last week, Government’s attempt to cut overtime from the Sanitation Service Authority (SSA) was met with strong objection as workers threatened not to pick up garbage over the weekend. The prospect of a messy Christmas was eventually averted. The SSA board, Minister of Labour Colin Jordan and the NUPW met and agreed to reinstate the overtime until early January 2019. [email protected]