Weapon of last resort
All of my training and experience has taught me that a strike is the weapon of last resort in the arsenal of a trade union. It should be used when all else has failed to persuade an employer to do the right thing.
However, there are times when the conduct of the employer is so egregious that the trade union would be forced to take immediate strike action in order to protect workers’ rights or their dignity, without going through the customary steps.
If you listen to the general secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU), you would get the impression that the sugar industry strike was necessary because the employer, the Barbados Agricultural Management Company (BAMC), has breached our time honoured labour relations practices. Relying on my training and years of experience, my perception does not coincide with the impressions that have been allowed to go abroad and take root.
Traditionally, trade unionists in Barbados either support the industrial action called by other unions or they keep quiet, rather than be critical of their colleagues. Over the years, the BWU has been a major beneficiary of this unwritten code of practice. But I believe that the time is ripe for someone to speak out for the greater good of the country. I am therefore venturing into uncharted territory by calling on the BWU to give cogent reasons for this latest escapade.
So far, the union’s attempts to justify the strike ring hollow, and all I try, a logical basis for the industrial action evades me. As far as I can recall the original reason for the strike was that BAMC terminated the workers at Andrews factory when negotiations for an enhanced severance package were ongoing.
My understanding is that the factory ceased operations in June last year, and that the workers continued on the payroll up to April 4, 2014 while negotiations with the BWU were taking place. After nine months of negotiations and paying workers for doing no work, the BAMC severed the workers in accordance with the Severance Payments Act and the Employment Rights Act. Nonetheless, the union deemed the dismissals as unfair and called out the workers at the lone remaining sugar factory in solidarity.
I was under the impression that all trade unions in the country welcomed the passage of the Employment Rights Act, which came into force on April 15, 2013. That act has set out procedures that would have obviated the need for the BWU to call a strike in these circumstances. Never before in the history of this country have the rights of workers been so clearly detailed. I believe that the union owed it to its members to have at least given the Employment Rights Act an opportunity to work. The company was required to give six weeks’ notice to allow for consultations before dismissing the workers. Instead, they did not only comply with the letter and spirit of the law; they went way beyond by being in consultation with the union for nine months while paying wages to the tune of $1.2 million over the period. For that they are being called upon by the union to apologise.
My view is that the company acted properly and from what the BWU has put in the public domain, the union has no basis for complaint. But even if they still genuinely felt aggrieved, they could still have relied on the provisions of the Employment Rights Act for a remedy rather than embark upon a strike that could further cripple the economy.
If BWU believed that the workers were being treated unfairly, the union could have made a complaint to the Chief Labour Officer under section 42 of the Employment Rights Act. In the event that his efforts at conciliation failed, he would have to refer the matter to the Employment Rights Tribunal, whose decision is final.
There are a number of other issues in this affair that I find troubling: constraints of space would only permit me to mention but not develop them.
When the workers at the National Housing Corporation (NHC) were dismissed, the DAILY NATION of March 6 quoted the general secretary of BWU as saying:
“We have never had the opportunity to meet with the National Housing Corporation before. We had asked to meet with them before but they proceeded to lay off workers without having any discussions whatsoever with us.”
There were no discussions with NHC or most of the other Government institutions while 6 000 public servants were earmarked for dismissals and there were no strikes or marches. I wonder why?
I also find it strange that the Minister of Labour would be presiding over this situation. She is the person who piloted the Employment Rights Act through Parliament. There are adequate provisions in that act to deal with the matter. There is no role for the Minister after its passage.
I have been reliably informed that BAMC is committed to paying all that is required by law. On the other hand, the union is insisting on an enhanced separation package which is essentially a gift from the employer: it is not an entitlement. Isn’t it strange that the union would be striking for a gift?
From where I am standing, I can see a mortar and a pestle but I am too far away to see what’s inside. I might be reading too much into the strike. It could simply be that the Employment Rights Act came into force in April 2013; the BWU was established in October 1941; and that an old union is finding it hard to learn new tricks.
• Caswell Franklyn is a trade unionist and social commentator. Email [email protected]