By Kenton X. Chance
The main trade unions representing state-employed workers continue to struggle to get the Unity Labour Party (ULP) administration and some of its agencies to address labour issues affecting various categories of workers.
The situation is casting some light on the Joseph “Burns” Bonadie-headed National Workers’ Institute for Research and Education and its work, in light of the fact that Bonadie is paid from the national coffers some EC$80,000 annually.
Unions: What Workers’ Institute?
At a press conference in July, head of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers’ Union, Oswald Robinson, said he was not sure that the institute even exists.
“Well, I don’t know if there is any Workers’ Institute,” he told iWitness News when asked about collaboration between the union and the institute to get the government to address issues affecting teachers.
“I am a very practical man, the Teachers’ Union is a very practical organisation. We have to ensure that something exists. We can’t just refer to something that [doesn’t exist]. If you have an institute, there must be a headquarters. I don’t know if there is any website or any address. If somebody would help me find that, we would be able to use that as another avenue,” Robinson further told iWitness News.
He said the Teachers’ Union is part of the National Labour Congress, which does not have a headquarters.
“So, if there is an institute somewhere, I would like to know the address, the telephone number and the means by which we could communicate.”
Robinson also said he does not know Bonadie to be head of the institute.
“I am hearing but I can’t deal with dem say (hearsay). I must have the evidence. There must be empirical evidence that something exists. There are a lot of people who would say this exists and that exists but where can you find it? Where on the map, where in St. Vincent is that office located?”
At a press conference in June, the Public Service Union (PSU) had given a similar response when asked if it had sought the assistance of the institute in trying to expedite the signing of a collective agreement between the union and the National Sports Council — a state-owned organisation.
In light of the challenges that the union has faced, iWitness News asked PSU head, Elroy Boucher if the Workers’ Institute would be positioned to assist in that regard and what role the institute plays in advocating for the interest of workers.
“Frankly speaking, I am not aware of any workers’ institute. Whatever that is, on whose behalf it really functions, I am not even aware,” Boucher told iWitness News.
“Has any work been done over the years to show that such an institute is absolutely necessary? Is it money well spent? Is it taxpayers’ money well spent? That’s the question we have to ask,” the PSU head further said.
He said that often times, “a lot of these things are done and what amuses me is that the taxpayers are the ones who carry the burden for these things”.
The PSU president noted that it is ultimately the taxpayers who are footing the bill for establishments like the workers’ institute.
“The politicians don’t dig out of their pockets to put it there; taxpayers do, and taxpayers should be asking the questions: is this money well spent? Is it tax dollars well spent? What are the outcomes? What is the operation plan that this institute has? Who is it touching or what is it touching? How is it impacting on labour relations in this country?”
Boucher said that as PSU president, he has heard about the institute but “not officially”. He has, rather, heard about the institute via Facebook, Boucher told iWitness News, adding, “but I am not convinced that it exists to work in the interest of the working class, whatever it is. Perhaps it’s just a phantom. Who knows?”
Boucher, however, noted that there is the National Labour Congress but said he has never heard the institute “mentioned in connection with the NLC”.
“Perhaps it’s only one employee. We really don’t know much about it.”
He further said that he does not know of collaboration between the institute and the NLC.
“There may be. I am not aware of any. So, there you go: accountability right there. You can ask for accountability, you are the journalist. It’s your tax dollars. All of us paid it, so all of us need to ask the question. Let the institute produce the work that has been done over the years,” he told iWitness News.
Workers’ or ULP’s institute
Bonadie, who is also president of the Commercial Technical and Allied Workers Union, heads the workers’ institute.
However some have argued that, in recent years, Bonadie is better known publicly not for his advocacy on behalf of workers, but for his defence, during his weekly radio appearance, of the ULP and its administration.
iWitness News has taken a look at how much of taxpayers’ dollars are directed to the institute.
A two-year contract between Bonadie, as director of the institute, and the government, made in February 2017, says that he is attached to the Ministry of Labour.
His salary would be $86,604 in Grade A3/13 plus any upward salary increases.
In addition to his annual salary, Bonadie also receives a housing allowance of EC$4,500 per annum, EC$7,200 as transport allowance, and entertainment allowance of EC$6,000 and a telephone allowance of EC$420 annually, according to the document obtained by iWitness News.
He is entitled to annual vacation leave of 30 working days and sick leave, as may be approved and certified by the government.
Three months before the completion of terms of service, Bonadie shall give notice in writing to the government regarding his desire to remain in its employment and the government shall decide whether it wants to offer him further employment.
According to a Treasury document showing salary payments from January 2014 to December 2016, Bonadie was one of the highest-paid employees under in the Labour Department, receiving an annual salary of EC$79,368 for each of the years, 2014, 2015, and 2016.
He received about EC$3,156 more than the Labour Commissioner, Fitzroy Jones, who took home EC$76,212 for each of those same years.
The 2017 Estimates suggest that Bonadie’s remuneration is listed under the “Labour and Safety Inspectorate Unit” as “additional staff”, with the amount allocated being a total of EC$80,532 for 2017.
‘… they know I exist…’
The terms of reference of Bonadie’s employment says he will be assigned to the Ministry of Labour and the terms of reference as well as the terms and conditions of his service may be modified from time to time in the interest of the government.
The documents further say that he is to “develop effective public awareness programmes through radio and television on all aspects of the function of the institute.”
Bonadie said this is done “on my Shake-up programme”, a reference to the pro-ULP weekday talk show programme on WE FM, which Bonadie hosts on Wednesdays.
The terms of reference further say that Bonadie is to develop and implement educational programmes dealing with capacity building, human resource development, occupation and safety, health and safety and fostering of appropriate attitude”.
Bonadie said this is being done “by my participation with the other unions in seminars and workshops and so on — up to two weeks ago with the Public Service Union at NIS,” he said in the Aug. 6 interview.
“It is an on-going thing with me,” Bonadie said, adding, Louise in my office is my research officer. I do all the research, I put together some of the cases that we hear at the appellate authority, all of those things I do.”
Asked about collaboration between the PSU and the claim by that union’s head that he doesn’t know that the institute exists, Bonadie told iWitness News, “He doesn’t know it exist but they invite me all the time to participate but not as the institute, as union leader. So I dovetail everything.”
He said that the Workers’ Union is not an abstraction as the union leaders suggested.
“They might say it don’t exist but they know I exist because I participate in programmes for them all the time but they don’t invite me as from the institute. Once they invite me I go and give of my knowledge,” Bonadie told iWitness News.
In light of the challenges that the unions have been having in addressing a number of labour issues, including the shortage of prison wardens at Her Majesty’s Prisons and getting the National Sports Council to sign a collective agreement with the PSU, Bonadie was asked if the Workers’ Institute would be willing to help the unions if they sought such assistance.
“They don’t have to approach, they just have to approach me. I am also president of the NLC. I can tell you I am the one who galvanised the issue with the signing of the collective agreement with the things. I don’t have to talk everything I do. When the collective agreement was being made, I went and spoke to the workers out at the sports council. The ministry sent me the collective agreement for my vetting, all of that was done,” he said, adding that the agreement should have been signed a week or two before the Aug. 6 interview.
“All those things, I do all those things but I don’t have to jump up and show and say everything I do,” Bonadie said.
But the PSU and the Sports Council are yet to sign the agreement, with a meeting to do so called off at the last minute and the agreement sent back to the Ministry of Legal Affairs, according to the union’s leader.
In the interview, Bonadie further told iWitness News that he conducts lecturers and helps university students with research into health and safety matters.
“I do it but I don’t have to go and brag… I meet with them all the time. All those people know how to find me.”
A façade for ULP work?
Bonadie acknowledged that there is a view among some that the Workers’ Institute is just a façade for him to get paid for his advocacy on behalf of the ULP.
“Well, they could say that. You know that is what they’re saying for the longest while,” Bonadie said but denied this.
“How could that be the case? I do a lot of work, my friend; plenty, plenty work. When you see exams coming around, my place full. I have classes down there. I don’t know who tell them, but they know where to find me. I give them material. I do that all the time; it is an on-going thing with me,” Bonadie told iWitness News.
He said that the Workers’ Institute is located at Union House — where the CTAWU has headquarters — and can be reached via telephone on 784-456-1525.
At a press conference on Aug. 7, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves was asked if he was satisfied with the work of the Institute and whether he was satisfied that it is money well spent.
The prime minister, who is also Minister of Finance, said: “In relation to Burns, since the shift of his focus of work has been with the legislation concerning occupational safety and health – that has been the brunt of the work in which he has been involved, and of course, he has been involved in advising both the Minister of Labour, and especially the Prime Minister on a host of issues connect to labour, labour relations, and certain developments — I have found the work that he has done with me to be useful work. I have found that he has done useful work with me.”