EDITORIAL: Poor timing at Combermere
THERE CAN BE NO DENYING that in recent times the island’s trade unions have been in the news with acute regularity, leading some to question their agenda and others to conclude they have been engaged in activities aimed at putting the Government under pressure.
In the case of the National Union of Public Workers and the Barbados Workers’ Union in particular, much of their agitation has been due directly to policy decisions of the Freundel Stuart administration, with the retrenchment of thousands of public workers standing at the pinnacle.
Conversely, disputes between the Barbados Union of Teachers and the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union have related in large measure to specific incidents — Parkinson Memorial Secondary, Alma Parris Secondary, Combermere School and of course the issue of school-based assessments vis-à-vis the refusal of the Caribbean Examinations Council to pay teachers for this task.
It is not hard when a population is confronted so often with unions agitating on such matters for individuals to exclaim: “Not them again!” They are left to believe that the unions are complaining for nothing more than the sake of complaining.
And it is this matter we wish to address, specifically with reference to Combermere. We have to conclude that if relevant officials at Comberemere and the Ministry of Education were on top of their game the school would not have had to be closed this week because of environmental concerns.
For more than a year both teachers and students have been falling ill, complaining of the strong odor of chemicals on the compound. The BSTU has been speaking publicly on the issue and it would appear that the reaction ranged from apathy on the part of officials to outright dismissal.
The last school term ended with a high level of anxiety and absenteeism among teachers, and while the holiday was just two weeks, if officials had treated the matter seriously this week’s closure might have been avoided. Reasonable people would have to conclude that if you can close the school for one week and clean it, then if you had done it during the holiday you would have had almost twice as much time to complete the task.
Students returned to the school on April 21 and immediately nearly a dozen fell ill, and teachers threatened not to return the following day, but to turn up for work at the offices of their employer at the Elsie Payne Complex. However, the ministry quickly announced it was closing the school for the rest of the week to try to correct the problem.
What the ministry has not told the public though is that the report from environmental expert Harold Oxley and his team was delivered by hand to the school since 10:15 a.m. on April 8, leaving them with a clear 12 days to act.
If that was the extent of the apparent failure to act, however, we could perhaps overlook the matter. But what Barbadians may not know is that as far back as August 25, 2014 the Chief Labour Officer wrote the school’s principal pointing out that his office had received reports of workers complaining of a gaseous smell and experiencing light-headedness, dizziness and an aftertaste on their tongues. That memo was accompanied by a six-page report of an investigation, including recommendations.
We are left now to ask whether officials at the school acted on the advice of the Labour Department.When public business is conducted so poorly that too often it compels unions to militancy it can unfairly leave their leaders looking like rabble rousers in the eyes of some citizens, when instead their focus should be on those who are tardy with the execution of their duties.
Neither the administration of Combermere School nor officials of the Ministry of Education should receive points for the “noble” act of closing the campus this week to clean it. It should never have reached this point.