The rubber is going to meet the road for labour unions in Barbados as negotiations intensify for a new collective wage agreement for public officers in Barbados.
The island’s largest representative of civil servants is the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), while a lesser number of state workers is represented by the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU). Of course, the upstart in the labour sector is the Unity Workers Union (UWU), headed by outspoken labour activist and former opposition senator Caswell Franklyn.
While Franklyn’s outfit is the smallest and newest trade union, its leader is no whipper snapper. He is highly regarded as an expert in the rules and functioning of the civil service and has demonstrated this repeatedly.
Government is the largest single employer in the country and it is likely that private sector leaders will be monitoring what position will be established by the administration in these wage talks.
The tone has been set by the economic advisors to Government, who for more than a year have been urging the administration to temper any enthusiasm it may have for satisfying the demands of civil servants.
Most of this country’s public officers may have the stability and peace of mind that comes with being appointed to the service. While they may enjoy such permanence, they also suffered through almost a decade without a pay increase before 2018.
Thousands of public sector workers were also shielded from the massive layoffs that devastated the private sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though our civil service is often the target of bashing over the quality of service and their level of productivity, the fact remains that Barbados has been well-served by its public service despite the need for reforms to suit the current times.
For all that has been said, civil servants have children, they have households to manage, they have expenses, they need to purchase groceries and pay for a range of services, all of which have dramatically increased in cost over the past four to five years.
The continuous complaints on radio call-in programmes and the average man on the street confirm that most households in this country are struggling under the weight of the high cost of living.
Minister of People’s Empowerment and Elder Affairs Kirk Humphrey admitted that the number of people seeking help from the Welfare Department and other social services has climbed dramatically.
This certainly tells a story of just how difficult fellow citizens are finding it to cope in the current environment.
Despite the very favourable performance and the forecast for further economic growth for the rest of the year, the entire country is being told to continue holding strain.
Frankly, in too many homes, there is not much for them to hold on to given their current situation.
As Governor of the Central Bank of Barbados Cleviston Haynes, goes through the door after not having his contract renewed by government, he too has joined the chorus pleading for restraint in public and private sector wage demands.
The NUPW reportedly went to the negotiating table asking for 11 per cent, while government is offering just two per cent. The gulf between the two negotiating positions remains extremely wide.
According to NUPW general secretary Richard Greene, the union’s “proposals are reasonable, and the members also consider them reasonable in light of the circumstances”.
On the other hand, Haynes and other economists have tried to convince Barbadians that they cannot seek wage increases that attempt to match rising inflation because it will lead to even more inflation, likening it to a dog chasing its tail.
As logical as the economists’ arguments have been presented, when push comes to shove, and Miss Brathwaite from Bank Hall goes to the supermarket or to pay her utility bills, she understands that her salary is just not allowing her to make ends meet.
In the face of insurance rates increasing, food prices on the rise, the Barbados Light & Power seeking a rate increase and already receiving an interim rate hike, and petrol still costing more than $4 per litre, Barbadians know the cost of living requires some mitigation through a reasonable salary increase.
Furthermore, the outcome of these salary negotiations is also likely to have repercussions for the leading trade unions, whose members are already dispirited about the level and quality of representation they are receiving.