By A.T. Freeman
In recent weeks, Barbados has seen an upsurge in actions by workers aimed at protecting their basic rights. At the core of these actions have been laid-off hotel workers, who are protesting at the refusal of their employers to pay redundancy payments. Workers from other sectors have also taken action around issues of pay and working conditions.
The wave of actions began in late November when workers at The Club Barbados Resort and Spa mounted a picket outside the hotel to highlight the fact that the company had reneged on its commitment to pay them their redundancy payment in two instalments of 50% and instead had paid them 25% of what was due to them and advised them to go to the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) for the remaining 75%. Within days of the workers’ actions, the Florida based US corporation Elite Island Resorts which owns the hotel, along with a string of other luxury resorts across the Caribbean where nightly rates are around US$400, announced that it had sourced enough funds to pay the workers their redundancy in full by the first week in December.
Workers at Accra Beach Hotel launched a similar action, again around the failure of the employers to honour redundancy payments and their efforts to direct them to the NIS for what was due to them. The Accra Beach workers were soon joined by workers from Savannah Beach Hotel and Hilton Barbados Resort. Workers protest actions have also taken place at the Grantley Adams International airport and at Ready Mix Ltd, a manufacturer of concrete.
The workers actions take place against an economic and social background in which the collapse of the tourism sector as a result of Covid 19 has seen unemployment shoot up to some 40% of the workforce. Many workers are now dependent on government financial support, paid through the NIS. However, these payments have not been received consistently or on a timely basis. Some workers received their first payments to cover their first 2 weeks in March as late as September, while others have had their payments stopped sporadically. To compound the problem, the government in June this year, amended the Severance Payments Act to make it more difficult for workers who had been laid off as a result of Covid 19 to opt for redundancy.
Facing this difficult situation, workers have found that their unions have not been there to defend their interests since many of the union leaders are closely connected to the ruling Barbados Labour Party [BLP] and have been reluctant to take a stand that would be seen as creating problems for the BLP government. In these conditions, the workers have taken matters into their own hands in order to secure their rights.
Taking aim at the workers’ actions, Prime Minister Mia Mottley, in her address to the country on the 54th anniversary of independence, likened these to the problems of gun violence which confront the country. She declared, “And I stand here today, to say to you that I believe that from St. Lucy to St. Philip, from St. John to St. James, and everything else in and about and around that, we can literally achieve the effort of wanting to remove the spectacle of gun violence and deaths from our community, because this is not who we are, and this must never be who we are. I asked us equally to recognise that sometimes it is not the loudest voice or the easiest way to make a spectacle that brings actually honour to yourself, to the community, or to the country, and to what do I refer. This has been a country that has been anchored by stable industrial relations for, next year, 80 years, when the Barbados Workers Union shall celebrate its 80th anniversary. We must not, at this stage of our development, not even for COVID, not for a war, not for any purpose, lose sight of how we do things and how we do business in this country. It has been a hallmark that has allowed others to hold us in high regard, and we must not lose that at this point….. And I ask us in Barbados not to shout at each other, even if somebody starts to do us wrong. There are ways of dealing with these matters. And we know how to do it, and we can do it without undermining the confidence that those who may be watching us from outside have in us, literally, because they see all of these examples of what they view as wildcat action taken hold in this nation”.
With these words, the Prime Minister is attempting to shift the blame onto the workers for the current situation, while it is the actions of the employers to violate the workers’ rights and the government’s collusion with these efforts through the changes to the Severance Payments Act which are the source of the problem.
In the face of the Prime Minister’s attack, the workers have reiterated their determination to push ahead with their struggle. Summing up the sentiment of his colleagues, one worker, Rodney Hinds, declared, “We are not worried about what the Prime Minister has to say. What the Prime Minister should come and do is make sure that the hoteliers pay severance…….So this is not just going to end today. This will continue until the severance is paid”.
All out to support the workers in their fight for their rights!