THIS WEEK I intended to write about Government’s misplaced priorities, focusing on the colossal waste of public funds to finance year-long 50th anniversary independence celebrations. They are spending millions of dollars while doing everything to avoid paying suffering former Government workers who had been made redundant in 2013 and 2014.
Instead, my attention was diverted by a story in Barbados Today on January 5, about the treasurer of the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), Asokore Beckles, considering contesting the next general elections on a Barbados Labour Party ticket.
I shudder at the thought of the damage that this ill-timed announcement could do to the local trade union movement, not only NUPW. The story revealed that Mr Beckles is also the chairman of the union’s salaries and allowance committee and chairman of the League of Young Socialists of the Opposition Barbados Labour Party. His publicly declared party affiliation should not matter, but in the Barbados context, it will present challenges for the union and, by extension, the workers.
Public workers were last given a salary increase in 2008 to cover the period April 2008 to March 2010. Government is already on record as saying that an increase in public service salaries at this time would compromise the economic recovery that has started.
I hardly believe that the Government would be amenable to granting salary increases in circumstances where the union’s negotiating team is led by one of its publicly declared opponents. Just imagine the boost to Beckles’ political profile if he were able to claim that he secured the first salary increase for public workers in six years. He would be practically unbeatable at the polls. Government is a lot of things but it is not stupid enough to create a national hero out of one its political enemies.
The NUPW would be best advised to distance itself from the politics of its treasurer, since the best interests of its members dictate that it should be seen as as being apolitical.
A salary increase is long overdue but the legitimate claims of the workers are now in danger of being sidelined by party politics. The DLP administration would now be in a position to claim that the union is putting undue pressure on Government in order to benefit the Opposition.
Beckles’ announcement is not the only situation where local unions seemingly compromised their independence. Both major unions, rather than relying on their own resources, have secured duty-free concessions from government on high-end vehicles for their newly appointed general secretaries. I am not saying that these concessions would cause either union to do less than their best in the representation of their members.
My contention is that they should not allow themselves to be seen, in the eyes of the average person, as being compromised, especially with salary negotiations in the offing.
Even though there might be nothing untoward about the granting and receiving of these duty-free concessions, the manner in which they have been done is cause for concern.
In accordance with the provisions of the Duties, Taxes and Other Payments (Exemption) Act, the Minister of Finance may by order grant an exemption to; or remit or refund any payment made by any person.
However, in accordance with section 4 of that act, the order is subject to negative resolution.
The expression “subject to negative resolution” is explained at section 41. (7) of the Interpretation Act. In this case it simply means that the order shall, as soon as may be after it was made, be laid in each House.
Thereafter, either House may resolve that the order shall be annulled and it would be void from the date of the resolution.
Over the years, I have seen similar orders being made by both political administrations and I am yet to see one being made public as required by the act. Let’s just hope that this time around that these exemptions are done in accordance with the statutory provisions.
Based on the foregoing, I am forced to ask: Are workers in this country being well served by the institutions that they pay to look out for their interests?
Caswell Franklyn is the general secretary of Unity Workers’ Union and a social commentator. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.