Akanni McDowall is substantively appointed to a junior post in the Public Service and until recently, he had been acting in senior posts in excess of two years. He also happens to be the duly elected president of the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW). His unceremonious reversion to his substantive post has generated a great deal of public comment, and rightly so, but much of it has been ill-informed or tainted with partisan political bias.
I came across two comments, posted by readers of the Barbados Today, that epitomises the ignorance that surrounds this issue:
1. “Why them don’t strike for the workers in Government that suffered the same fate as this gentleman”.
2. “He was acting. He is not entitled to a damn thing”.
Both of those comments betray a serious lack of knowledge of the institution called the “Public Service”. Firstly, I am aware that countless persons have been reverted to their substantive posts or even dismissed before the expiration of their contracted periods and only now is there any threatened industrial action. But, to my mind, Akanni’s case is unique and deserving of a response from all trade unions in Barbados not only NUPW. Unions must regard Akanni’s reversion as an attack on all unions. They must band together and not allow government to get away unscathed after this assault on a trade union leader or this episode could very well be the beginning of the end of the trade union movement in Barbados.
It is my understanding that he was appointed, by the Governor-General, to act in a higher office for a specific period. If that is indeed the case, his acting appointment could only come to an end by the effluxion of time or earlier, if he has been removed from office by the Governor-General. As far as I am aware, neither of those two conditions was satisfied to effect his reversion. Section 94. (1) of the Constitution of Barbados states:
Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, power to make appointments to public offices and to remove and to exercise disciplinary control over persons holding or acting in such offices is hereby vested in the Governor-General, acting in accordance with the advice of the Public Service Commission.
So far, I have heard many excuses but I am yet to hear anyone say that he was removed from his acting position by the Governor-General, who is the only lawful authority that can do so.
While we lament the attack specifically on Akanni but generally on the trade union movement, I believe that some good can still come out of this affair. It can serve to draw attention to the non-observance of public service rules and procedures that are required by law. The procedure for employing public officers are set out in the Recruitment and Employment Code – the First Schedule to the Public Service Act. It might surprise many to learn that the Public Service Commission only has the power to place persons to act in short term vacancies for a maximum period of twelve months. Yet still there are persons, including a permanent secretary, who have been acting in vacant posts for ten or more years. That restriction can be found at paragraph 9 of the code.
Further, Note 7 of the code directs the service commissions to fill vacancies immediately, “If there is any possibility that staff may be needed for more than 12 months”. Despite that, persons are given seemingly unending series of three-month authorities. They only serve as a means to ensure that the acting officers continue to toe the line. Akanni did not toe the line.
I hold the view and will continue of that mind until someone convinces me that Akanni’s removal had nothing to do with his youthful exuberant activity as a trade union leader seeking to represent his members. I have been asked on more than one occasion why am I fighting for my opponent. My response is always that there is a bigger picture; I must put out the fire at my neighbour’s house before it spreads to mine.