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Riding out the recession

Gercine Carter

Riding out the recession

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Sir Roy Trotman has guided the fortunes of the Barbados Workers’ Union as general secretary since 1992.
He is a former president of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and rose to prominence in the International Labour Organization.
In this week’s Big Interview with NATION Senior Reporter Gercine Carter, he addresses issues relating to the economic crisis in Barbados, layoffs, talk of a wage freeze, his style of leadership versus Sir Frank Walcott’s, and other challenges facing the union.
Where does the trade union movement stand given the current economic crisis?
Sir Roy: It is a nervous time for the labour movement. We are being cautiously optimistic regarding the economy. We have based that optimism on commitments which we have sought to get from employers and from the Government.
We are in a nervous position because our constituents do not and will not totally understand the situation which is facing the country because frequently people will only look as far as their own individual agendas and their own individual interests will take them.
Nervous as well because the commitments which are made are not made and underwritten by any law or by any means through which we can coerce adherence to those commitments.
What are those commitments?
Sir Roy: The Government has committed to a no-layoff policy which binds it to the entire public service and also makes it the leader and the moral guider for the private sector. But there is nothing that says that tomorrow the Government may not, by whatever and for whatever reason it chooses, find itself laying off some persons. The most that will happen is that we will need to respect they will be acting in good faith.
That is even more evident and more real in the private sector because when the crisis was first seen by us as one of the matters that loomed as a major threat, we got the employers to buy into an arrangement of a no-layoff policy. By and large they have sought to adhere to it.
But there have been some, in the last nine months particularly, who are sending us letters, but they are sending us letters which are arriving after the persons have been laid off.
Is the Barbados Workers’ Union willing to accept a wage freeze for public sector workers?
Sir Roy: I think in essence what has happened is that the country as a whole has taken that as a position. Negotiations do not mean automatic adjustments upwards in wages.
The BWU has taken the position that where a company can make adjustments in wages and salaries, that it should do so, and there are companies in Barbados that are able to do so.
Some have declared significant profits . . . and they have got to understand that in those circumstances, they cannot follow those employers who are experiencing something different.
For the public service we realize that, yes, we can push Government and Government might out of a sense of political expediency agree to adjust wages and salaries upward.
But then the alternative would clearly be for the same Government to go the next week and increase taxation in an area where not only public servants, but everybody else will feel the brunt of a tax adjustment that is not welcome.
What is the BWU?doing to help workers deal with the rising cost of living?
Sir Roy: The BWU as a union cannot do material things, but the BWU?has been doing many things through influence and through pressure of one kind and another.
We used to have a monitoring mechanism in CTUSAB?[Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados] where we would look at prices and we would endeavour to have the employers revisit those prices when we thought there were elements of gouging.
These are workers at the bottom of the pay scale. What is the BWU?doing to get an increase in the minimum wage in Barbados?
Sir Roy: We have approached the matter of increasing the minimum wage because we think that if the minimum wage is changed for those at the bottom in the public and the private sector, that will cause an adjustment in the area of many people who are working for less than they are paying to get to work and to get their children through school.
Our position is that we have tried to find some kind of ease for persons in that stage; we have tried to see the extent to which we might be able to help other persons who are undergoing difficulties and to see whether the Government’s project for welfare might be able to extend to include them.
How do you compare your style of trade union leadership with that of the Right Excellent Sir Frank Walcott?
Sir Roy: We have different styles. My style is to try to encourage people to see it my way, because more than he did, I have sought to fully include our colleagues at all levels and see that we can get agreed positions before we move on. Sir Frank was much more pragmatic.
The Right Excellent Sir Frank was an extraordinary person. He had a very difficult task to provide leadership and guidance because he was, as some people said, “the man from obscurity” taking over the leadership from Sir Grantley Adams who, because he was a professional, brought a certain prestige and stature to the job.
By and large his (Sir Frank’s) leadership was [one] where the employer was easily recognized as being different, the masses were black and the employers were white.
He told me soon after he retired that my task would have been more difficult. He said: “What you will find is that the people who will sit across the table from you are going to be people who went to school at your school, whose children are going to school with your children and who have benefited from the work of the trade union, but who will not want publicly to admit that the trade union made their families.
“They will be harsher in their rejection of the trade union than people were when I was the general secretary.’
Was his prediction accurate?
Sir Roy: Oh, absolutely true. I am saddened by it, but it was something that I learned to expect.
When do you plan to retire and who do you see as your successor for leadership of the BWU?
Sir Roy: Soon . . . . I have given up my position as chairman of the Workers Group of the governing body of the International Labour Organization.
I have stepped down as president of the Congress of Trade Unions. I told my executive I am ready to go; I even tendered my letter of resignation when I reached retirement age but they have indicated they would like me to hold on for a bit longer.
I do have some thoughts on possible candidates to succeed me and I intend to pass those on to the executive body.