NOT ALL BLACK AND WHITE: Unions seize chance for redemption
THE RELATIONS BETWEEN the Government and trade unions in this country has been unnecessarily reduced to a state of government induced chaos.
It would appear that the major unions have delinked from Democratic Labour Party control, leaving the Government rudderless in the sea of industrial relations.
Previously, Government did not see the need to develop any expertise in the area of industrial relations because it relied on its minions who control the decision-making organs of the unions to keep a lid on the simmering cauldron of employee discontent.
It was not unusual to hear commentators, myself included, say that the unions would have been engaged in vigorous battles in defence of workers rights if the Barbados Labour Party were in power.
It had become apparent to all but the purblind that control of the unions was ceded to the DLP, to be used to wrestle power from the BLP, and when in power, to pacify the workers.
Fortunately, the major unions, Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) and the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) are under new management, and coupled with falling membership, they were forced to act or witness the demise of their organisations.
The forced retirement of workers from the Barbados Investment and Development Corporation (BIDC) has given the NUPW a platform from which it could start to redeem itself in the eyes of its membership. And with right on its side the union has seized the opportunity with zeal.
The issue in contention is a very simple matter which could be settled without much ado if Government were interested in a resolution on anything but its own terms.
The dispute can be reduced to very basic facts: BIDC is relying on section 8 of the Statutory Boards (Pensions) Act which previously gave the board the power to compulsorily retire workers at any time after they reach 60 years of age; on the other hand, the NUPW is relying on section 8A of the same act, a 2004 amendment, which essentially took away that power from the board and allowed workers to retire at the age at which they could access their full pensions from National Insurance, which is now 66 and a half years.
Even though the amendment is pellucid, I will rely on Hansard to show that Government is being unnecessarily contentious. The debate took place on December 14, 2004, and according to the official record, the first person to speak on the bill, Hon. Miss M. A. Mottley said and I quote:
“Mr Speaker, this amendment before the House today seeks to do the simple thing of amending our Pensions Act such that we remove the compulsory retirement age for public servants from 60 years old to 65 years old.”
She went on to explain later in her speech that the amendments were recommendations from a committee that was established to review the Public Service pension arrangements by saying:
“Mr. Speaker, that committee recommended that the retirement age at which pension becomes payable in Barbados should be harmonised with the retirement age at which pension is payable under the National Insurance and Social Security Schemes of Barbados.
“I want to repeat that point because what we are seeking to do now is to take two separate pension arrangements and ensure that there is a harmonisation of the pension rights and arrangements thereto. The retirement age at which pension becomes payable under the Public Service of Barbados should be harmonised at the retirement age at which it becomes payable under the national insurance and Social Security Scheme.
“Mr Speaker, this is going to be done in a gradual way. It would mean that this would permit a change in the compulsory age of retirement from 60 to 65, and ultimately by the year 2018 going to the age of 67 years old. This does not in any way, Mr Speaker, change the right of persons who now have the right to take early retirement at 55 years old.”
It does not change, and this is perhaps the most important point for those who are communicating this generally to the public, that this does not change the right of persons who may now retire early at 55 years.
If you still wanted to retire at 60, 61, 62, 63 or 64, you could go ahead under this legislation, but you must retire at 65.
The only two entities that are not covered by this amendment – and that is because their arrangements are normally dealt with by the Constitution and we would continue to treat to new arrangements for them in the Constitution – would be the Auditor General and the Director of Public Prosecutions who, under the Constitution of Barbados must retire at the age of 62 years. They do not fall under this amendment . . . .“
When this bill was debated there were three members of the current Cabinet that were present in the House as Opposition members. Surely, at least one of them should have remembered.
Government must now do the right thing, that is, admit the mistake and let industrial peace reign, not on its terms or on the union’s terms but in accordance with the law.
Caswell Franklyn is the general secretary of Unity Workers Union and a social commentator. Email firstname.lastname@example.org