The COVID-19 vaccine mandate that caused hundreds of people to lose their jobs last December is a stain on the Unity Labour Party administration that people will not forget, says Opposition Leader Godwin Friday.
Friday said on radio on Monday that the government “overreacted” when it imposed the mandate last year, resulting in thousands of public sector workers having to choose between the jab and their jobs.
“Nobody else in the region did that,” he said, and called on the government to reinstate the dismissed workers.
He told listeners to the party’s programme on NICE Radio that at one point, the Ralph Gonsalves government treated COVID-19 “as though it was some minor thing that will be passing”.
“And then all of a sudden, they go on to the other end of the spectrum … completely beyond the range where others have gone and they are firing people because they did not take the vaccine; making them choose between their bread and their bodies, and many people did choose their bread,” he said.
“But they will not forget the government that made them make that choice because they want to look out for their families and they were prepared to do so even though they had serious doubts in their minds regarding the vaccine.
“That is something that will be a stain on this administration forever. And none of the people who have been directly affected and none of us quite frankly, as a country, should forget, and forgive them for that.”
He said that the government enforced the mandate “because they had the power, that’s it; nothing else.
“They had the power to do it and it’s basically, ‘I will show you’,” Friday said, adding that now that things have relaxed somewhat, people all over the world are learning to live with COVID “because that is what we have to do now”.
Friday said he will continue to call for the reinstatement of the workers until the government “gets out of its pig-headed stance and do the right thing”.
He said that restating the workers, as the Teachers Union, Public Service Union, and Police Welfare Association, have called for, is the right thing.
The opposition leader said that one day the workers were teachers and healthcare workers alongside their colleagues and the next, the government regarded them as a threat to the same work places, where some of them had given decades of service.
“Imagine how that makes those workers feel,” Friday said.
On July 28, the prime minister said that his government was inviting unvaccinated public sector workers dismissed over the mandate to reapply for re-employment.
He subsequently said that he would expect that the workers would be rehired at the same level and that their pension benefits would remain intact.
Friday said that the dismissed workers and their families are enduring hardship over and above other citizens.
“Their families endure tremendous hardship, because they have no income, or their income was severely reduced by those persons being out of work.
“And they have to try and make do. Their payments, they fall behind in the payments. They have to cut back.”
Friday said “two vices” are squeezing these dismissed public sector workers, namely unemployment and a rising cost of living.
“… food stuff in the shops is becoming more and more expensive, gas prices going up, cooking gas, and vehicle gas, diesel, everything going up, except for salaries and for those people who were laid off, except not getting back good jobs”.
The opposition leader called on the government to turn its mind to these issues.
“That is what they need to focus on. Not this navel-gazing that they have and they call it a convention where they are focusing on themselves. People want them to focus on the reality that is facing them daily. Jobs. We campaigned upon that during the last election because that is the best way to provide our people with the means to look after themselves and their families,” he said, referring to the November 2020 general elections.
“They don’t have to come to my office on a Monday morning begging for a hand out. The children going to school, having to select their subjects they don’t have to look to see whether their family could afford for you to write eight or nine or 10 subjects because they don’t have the money to be we said we would pay for all of those.”
He said that before being fired, many of these people enjoyed a good standard of living, having worked at senior levels in the teaching or public service.
“And then they are there, have the respect of the peers, of the public that they serve, the parents and the children that they serve in schools and the next day, they are thrown out as though they have no value.”
He said that these workers “are made to bear a disproportionate share of the pain and suffering brought upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges for adaptation that we must make as we go forward.
“It is time now for those people to come back to work. Stop bickering, stop all of the talk about definitions, about ‘reinstatement’, ‘rehiring’, and what happens and so forth,” the opposition leader said.
“It is ridiculous to think that somebody who’s been teaching for 10, 15 years, or in the public service for 20 years would have to reapply for a job and they assess whether they want to hire them or not. And then they sit back and don’t know where they are with respect to seniority and their benefits and so forth.”
The opposition leader said that the unions have called for the reinstatement of the workers, adding that this “is what all people throughout this country understand must be done.”
Friday said that the dismissed workers deserve to be reinstated in the positions they were in when fired last December.
“And I support the call of the Teachers’ Union, the Public Service Union and the Police Welfare Association on behalf of their members. I support their call for the reinstatement of their workers and for them to be made whole again, put back to where they were when they were fired, in terms of their benefits, their jobs, their seniority, and so forth,” Friday said.