By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Sept. 10, 2021)
There was a notion that workers did not need trade unions. To the extent that unions existed, there needed to be a class truce in which the workers and their representatives were to enter into what was known as a Tripartite Alliance. This alliance, purportedly intended for the national good, was between the government, the private sector and the workers and their representatives.
As we have seen since 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has tightened the relationship between the business community and the government. The workers are made to feel the pain. Many were laid off, made to accept reduced wages. Others are threatened with dismissal if they don’t take the vaccine. The government tells employers it is prepared to change the law to protect employers who take decisive action against workers.
As a consequence of this alliance, we have heard of layoffs and wage freezes, where workers go for years without an increase in wages and salaries; givebacks, where workers give up some of their contractual benefits won over long years of struggle, or simply made to honour old contractual agreements because employers and government refuse to enter good faith discussions that lead to a new contract. In the grand scheme of things, all parties are to make concessions so that society will experience social harmony, but the economy will thrive, businesses and governments will hire more people, and everyone will be satisfied.
This idealised state of existence never materialised, especially for the workers and their unions. Any union leadership that lobbies or agitates for their members is labelled anti-government. Some leaders are harshly criticised. All the while, no one stops to think or wonder why union members are electing persons who may not support the status quo.
It is instructive that the last signed collective bargaining agreement between the St. Vincent Union of Teachers and the government is dated 2005. The PSU, which has constitutional status, has never signed a collective bargaining agreement with the government. The union, however, signed a deal with BRAGSA, National Broadcasting Corporation and the National Sports Council.
Small wonder then that workers feel so short-changed. Instead of joining unions and strengthening their fighting spirit, some workers choose to stay away because the unions are either useless or helpless. This is always music to an employer’s ears. Keep the workers divided, and the status quo continues. Where are trade unionists in the mold of Ebenezer Joshua, Cyril Roberts, Duff Walker James, Sonny Boyce, Jerry Haywood and Caspar London, all veteran trade unionists who served our workers admirably when the people of SVG needed them most? Many in the current batch of union leaders suck on the honeycomb of power. They will take to the airwaves and batter anyone who speaks up for workers and call for the fighting spirit of yesteryear.
While this sad situation continues, private businesses are made to pay lesser taxes. Corporate taxes have been reduced by 10% over the last 20 years as the government implemented the neo-liberal mantra that lesser taxes will spur the economy. Yet, many businesses don’t bother to pay taxes or withhold NIS payments. David Ames of Buccama Resorts was spirited out of the country owing EC$8 million in NIS, VINLEC and CWSA. No attempt to extradite David Ames and try him for theft and fraud. Locals who steal government revenue get swift justice in the law courts while poor citizens lose their water and electricity if they owe a few hundred dollars. The tax department estimates that there are hundreds of millions in unpaid taxes. Indeed, it is not our daily paid workers and civil servants who owe this massive amount of due taxes.
But this is not all. Big companies, especially foreign corporations bargain for all manner of tax-free concessions. They are allowed to bring in equipment and building materials. They even bring in foreign workers with no special skills. This illegal practice deprives citizens of a chance at meaningful employment. In the tourism sector, the racism meted out to workers is as despicable as it is widespread. We have not even factored in sexual harassment and assault, which frequently occur on the job.
Another area that cries out for attention is the Labour Department and how grievances are heard. There is a clear pro-employer bias in some staff members at the department. Many seem more concerned about protecting the business owners than in hearing the plight of fired employees. The problems persist because there are far too many grievances for a single hearing officer. No less than three officers will facilitate the prompt attention workers’ grievances demand. Consider a worker who files for unfair dismissal. The legal remedy apart from severance payment is reinstatement to the job. If a worker is unfairly dismissed and waits for a very long time for a hearing, this may militate against his/her seamless return to the job. If the worker is not lucky to find another job, he/she languishes, sometimes for more than a year, with no income and an uncertain future.
Workers get short-changed in other ways as well. A worker who appeals a decision from the Public Service Corporation (PSC) gets a hearing before the Public Service Board of Appeal. A cardinal point in the appeal may be a point of law. But there were no lawyers on the board of appeal. A lawyer on the board may lend legal sense to the debate regarding the weight of the case against a public servant. Clearly, workers are the faces at the bottom of the well. It is time we do more to lift them.
This piece was first published in May of 2018. Minor changes were made to this version.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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