Over the past few years, we have heard a lot about “sick buildings”, primarily in the public sector, including schools. In most cases, action is only taken to resolve the issues when workers go on strike, parents or teachers stage protests after years of complaints, or the affected department is forced to relocate.
But now, sick buildings in the private sector have come to the fore for the first time in a number of years when a team of inspectors went into the former Liquidation Centre warehouse retail store on Bay Street, following Government’s acquisition of that property for demolition to make way for the Hyatt Ziva hotel.
Attorney General Dale Marshall reported that several government agencies, including the Ministry of Health, Barbados Fire Service, the Ministry of Housing and the Barbados Water Authority discovered major health and safety code violations at the Liquidation Centre.
Officers had to wear protective gear and found major fire hazards, including a single exit and entrance door; a non-functional smoke alarm and other malfunctioning firefighting equipment; four illegal water connections; vermin infestations of all kinds, and excessive dust and mould.
In a report, they concluded that “this building is not fit for human occupation for any purpose”.
Nevertheless, these issues did not occur overnight.
Customers and workers would have endured these conditions on a daily basis for years and were likely sickened as a result. But obviously very little was done to correct any violations, leading to its current state.
In 2012, another store owned by the Mirchandani family, Furniture Limited, was forced to close its doors after health inspectors discovered a wide range of violations there. After a full clean-up, it reopened under a different name.
Safety issues at some of the smaller retailers in Bridgetown came into the spotlight in 2010 when six young women lost their lives in a fire at the Campus Trendz store in Tudor Street.
On a visit to many an innercity store, customers will still find a shop overstuffed with racks to the extent there is barely enough walking space or breathing room, mouldy smells in the atmosphere, malfunctioning air conditioning systems, or dust-infested fans that look as though they have not been cleaned since their initial purchase. And of course, there’s only one door in and out.
Following the Liquidation Centre issue, over the last few days, Minister of Labour and Social Partnership Relations Colin Jordan led a team of ministry officials on a tour of several Swan Street and Tudor Street shops, mostly ‘one-door’ operations.
On his site visit, the minister stated that the Labour Department needed more staff. He declared: “We have a particular issue with manpower and how we distribute that manpower.
“In my first year on this job, I would have told the Chief Labour Officer that we needed more officers on the road, but in talking to him, I realised that when workers call the office they need to speak to someone.
“If the officers are on the road they can’t be in the department as well, and given the vast number of private and public businesses, some may slip through the cracks.”
Many years ago when these buildings were built and businesses first occupied them, matters such as occupational safety and health were nowhere on the radar globally or locally. The world has changed now, and Barbados has kept pace up to a point with the Factories Act and the Safety and Health At Work Act, both of which are aimed at ensuring minimum standards of safety for anyone working at or merely venturing into the property.
The Labour Minister said that for the 2020 Estimates he will consider budgeting for extra labour officers.
We concur that the Labour Department and the Ministry of Health do need more inspectors out in the field but the departments need sharper teeth as well.
In other jurisdictions, if inspectors find any violations, the owners are expected to correct them immediately or face either significant fines or even closure to ensure compliance. Of course, inspectors must also be of high integrity in case violators attempt to bribe or otherwise influence them to write up a “good report” when they know their operations are not entirely above board.
We hope that with more labour officers on board, there will be more frequent inspections, both random and scheduled. Offenders must be made to feel the full weight of the law as health and safety violations harm staff, customers, and the bottom line in the long run.