IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: Small details, big impact
In the first few days of March this year, authorities at the Transport Board severed more than 100 employees. Some of the individuals who got letters might have been surprised that they were included, but there could hardly have been a person alive in Barbados at the time who was surprised by the overall action.
After all, it was several months earlier that Government gave notice that it was sending home thousands of public officers, and from day one, even though those who would be sent home were not identified, it would have been impossible for any reasonably sound mind not to include Transport Board workers in the equation.
For decades the Transport Board has been broke. For decades it has been depending on subsidies from central Government to keep it afloat. For decades its operations have been largely inefficient. For decades it has been the source of employment for politicians who had to find jobs for constituents – even though there were no vacancies. For decades the board has been providing rides at fares considerably lower than their true value.
There was no way any Government, Bees or Dems, could have cut in the name of efficiency without touching the Transport Board.
So, the same way the workers and the general public knew Transport Board workers would have been going home, the board and management of that agency would have been even more aware that workers would have been losing their jobs. Their responsibility would have involved a lot more than just identifying those to go home. They would have had to include in their deliberations issues impacting on those who would be departing, those who would be remaining and the commuters who would be impacted by it all.
That’s why there is really no reasonable excuse that can be advanced for why these employees are still suffering and protesting because they have not been paid their severance due. It is now just under two weeks short of six months that the workers received notice and still they have to be protesting to receive what is rightfully theirs.
Yes, Government is having cash flow problems. Yes, the Treasury is not as bountiful as it used to be. Yes, the state has to balance how it pays what it owes against what it takes in, but for Heaven’s sake, I don’t see how paying a handful of the lowliest former public officers can do any more damage to the national financial situation.
When all the fluff and excuses are stripped away, as far as I am concerned, it really boils down to how much we empathise with the plight of the proverbial small man or woman.
Take the case of Lora Greenidge, who worked with the Transport Board for five years as a general worker earning a mere $432 a week and raising five children. If the Transport Board believed she was fit for severance, that is its right as the employer, but if it promised her and the other dismissed workers their pay by April 30, why should they still be waiting just ten days short of August 30?
She recalled numerous phone calls and visits to the board’s Weymouth, Roebuck Street headquarters and being “given the runaround”, followed by a promise in late June that she and the others would get their money within two weeks. She is still waiting.
“Mr Morris, it is hard, real hard. Sometimes people feel that you are just keeping noise because you can, but you have no idea how hard it is. My oldest child is 20 and he just got work two days a week . . . . When I get [unemployment money] from NIS [National Insurance Scheme] it goes to Transport Board Credit Union, Public Workers (credit union) and BNB and whatever left goes towards light and water.
“When I tell you that some days my children don’t eat, I am not telling no lie. Sometimes all I can tell them is that I trying but I can’t do any better. My boyfriend is a barber and what little he makes he helps with the light and water to keep them on.”
She added: “If you think I am telling lies, you can come and look in my cupboard and fridge now. Nothing at all in them, nothing. I don’t have one thing to cook – nothing, nothing at all. We had pelau on Sunday and left back some for yesterday. I have no idea what we will eat today.”
In addition to her 20-year-old son, she has children ages 17, 14, 12 and eight, and with the start of the new school year just two weeks away, she has no idea how she will ready the youngest three for classes.
My question to her was: If you had received severance back in April, how would you have made it stretch this long with all those demands? After all, the severance calculated on a salary of $432 per week over five years can’t be any massive sum.
The answer was very simple and here’s how I summarise it. Don’t ever assume that because someone is of poor and humble means, he is dumb or incapable for coming up with sound ideas to help himself.
Greenidge, after her Transport Board experience, is not anxious to work for anyone at this time. She says she is a good cook and wants to open her own business selling food, drinks and other small items. She looked around and found the “back of an old delivery truck” that can be converted into a canteen.
The owner has promised to sell it to her for $1 500 and she has been waiting all this time to be paid her severance due so she can “get back on my feet, feed my children, get them ready for school and stop the people at Mannings from calling every day”.
To some of us, what Greenidge has been waiting for from the Transport Board might appear too small to create such bother, but to her and her family it is about living with dignity; it is about getting back on your own feet. It is also about being able to wake up in the morning with a smile on your face and a sense that you can help yourself, as opposed to what occurs now – rising each morning with tears in your eyes and worry in you chest.
Another general worker who worked for nine years and earned $424.13 a week, all but cried as she related how she has been unable to start preparing her children, ages seven, 12 and 14, for school. She can take the pain of her own hunger, but the thought of those she brought into the world being deprived of an education because she can’t clothe them takes her to the brink of despair.
And only after getting an assurance from me that I would not identify her did she tell me what’s in her cupboard today – “a little sweet milk, some browning and a small package of seasoning, that’s all, and I am being honest”. No rice, no potatoes, no sugar. Not an onion or can of sardines or corned beef. Her children, luckily, will eat some of what her sister cooks.
“Honestly, we don’t eat every day,” she said. “Life ain’t easy at all.”
Let me make this point as I close: I honestly do not believe that Minister of Transport and Works Michael Lashley, Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart or any officer at the Transport Board intended for Greenidge and the other severed workers to go through such hardship. Partisan politics is about winning and retaining parliamentary seats and I am sure that if these individuals had the option, they would add jobs to gain more votes, rather than retrench workers, which without doubt will cost them votes.
But, too often, those of us with the power to make decisions that affect the lives of others don’t pay enough attention to the details that can minimise pain. In the case of the Transport Board, the devil was definitely in the details.
If you doubt me, fathom this. Even with all her other problems, there is one simple matter that still cuts Greenidge to the core.
She asked: “Can you explain to me why management would sever us, don’t pay us what we are owed but still take away the passes that would allow us to travel free on the bus? Tell me what it cost the Transport Board if I could still use my pass to take the bus to Town on business when I can’t get my money to pay bus fare?”
The devil is in the details!