By Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk”, April 17, 2020)
“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” — James Baldwin.
The April 7 decision of Justice Henry, in which she reversed government’s highhanded and illegal actions in dealing with the Public Service Union and its members, highlights a dangerous anti-union, anti-worker tendency on the part of Unity Labour Party government.
Compounding this sad and troubling reality is that supporters of the party, who are normally all-over social media praising, highlighting or defending this or that action or achievement of the government and its leaders, have not batted an eyelid at these recurring injustices. In fact, many of them cheer on the highhandedness in the name of party unity and loyalty. My party, right or wrong, remains the post-independence mantra of the tribes.
Our recent history paints a compelling tale for the aggressive actions and callous disregard of the government in its relations with workers and unions.
We may not recognise it now, but in time, Vincentians will arrive at the realisation that the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court stood as a bulwark against our country’s descent into a very dark place.
A quick review tells the story:
We must not forget the government attempt to economically assassinate Otto Sam. Sam, a former president of the Teachers’ Union and firebrand defender of PM Gonsalves, went into bankruptcy and for a long time could not meet his basic needs. He suffered the indignity of having to rely on family and friends to survive. The law courts rescued him by declaring his transfer from the classroom and eventual dismissal unreasonable, irrational and illegal. While Otto has received his just compensation, the government refused to pay and appealed the $52,000 cost that the court awarded.
Then there is the fate of teachers Elvis Daniel, Kenroy Johnson and Addison “Bash” Thomas who were fired and denied pension and gratuity because they committed the “silly sin” of taking the government’s word, as outlined in a contract with the Teachers’ Union, to contest parliamentary elections. Their error is that they were opposition candidates. The government claimed the agreement was only aspirational and not legally binding. The teachers were defeated and were refused reemployment. Labour Party supporters cheered the decision.
The courts intervened and found the government’s actions improper and illegal. The Court of Appeal essentially laughed at the government’s attempt to use the Constitution as a shield against the Teachers’ Union and its members. Regrettably, to this late date, Head Teacher Johnson, who has passed retirement age, has not received his gratuity.
The Public Service Union took the government’s Public Service Commission (PSC) to court, questioning its promotions practices. The court found the government PSC was acting illegally, citing its failure to keep a proper reporting and seniority system. Nothing has changed and the unions have threatened to sue again to press for the enforcement of the court order.
In the April 7 decision, the caourt stepped in to block a gross injustice against a young civil servant whom the Permanent Secretary in the National Security Ministry and the PSC tried to ruin financially. They conspired to transfer him from Union Island to the mainland, without taking into consideration all the relevant considerations, including the servant’s finances and family life.
The court ruled that while the PSC can transfer anyone within the Public Service, it must do so in keeping with the law. It held that the PSC acted in a procedurally improper manner. It also concluded that by failing to offer the public servant a right to be heard, it acted unfairly and illegally.
It is widely believed that the public servant’s brother was tipped to represent the governing party in the Southern Grenadines constituency. One shudders to think if the government’s machinery deals so shabbily with a supporting family, how it deals with matters of persons who may be opposed or whose allegiance it cannot gauge.
The way high state officials deal with these matters is revealing. Clearly, persons with legal training and sitting high up in the state bureaucracy have morphed from lawyers to ideologues. In each of these cases, influential persons were asked to settle or withdraw the proceeding, but failed to do so, evidently under the mistaken and illusory belief that the state had a fighting chance to prevail in the court.
If you question any of the foregoing conclusions, listen to the following statement:
“Look! One ah de easiest things which yo’ can do, one ah de laziest things you can do is to say shut down the place. Shut down school, doh mek people go church, lock it off, don’t gather more than ah hundred, so if yo’ ha’ more than ah hundred going to a funeral, if yo’ popular in ah village, even though there is no — ‘Please, don’t come; just send ah email, this is just for the family, no more than 30.’ What ah time!’
This from a leader marshalling his citizens to fight against the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic? Is this not a call for the populace to selectively disregard the recommendations of health officials? Small wonder then that people in SVG are not taking the social and physical distancing seriously. The leader gives the impression that the threat is not real, and people must go about their business as usual.
Further, look at social media portrayal of our PM on the airport tarmac at Argyle with no protective gear with COVID-19 testing kit in hand. And if you are still not convinced, go back and listen to our prime minister calling his CARICOM colleagues and by extension most world leaders lazy for trying to protect their citizens.
“One ah de easiest things which yo’ can do, one ah de laziest things you can do is to say shut down the place.”
Why is such an approach lazy? Is that not what most have done? Now that’s lazy ignorance masquerading as scholarship.
The saddest part of all of this is that in each case, supporters of the governing party gleefully cheer on these assaults on people’s senses. And the newspapers refuse to call out this madness.
We thank the unions for standing firm in defence of their members. Most importantly, we praise the courts for being a guardian of the law. Without you, helplessness and hopelessness would be stalking the land.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].