The Unity Labour Party (ULP) is a government of “broken promises” that is “is making a lot of errors” and should, therefore, repeal the vaccine mandate law and return to the negotiation table.
“Well, he closed the door by imposing a law, which violating people’s constitutional rights. And what he needs to do is just humble himself, acknowledge his wrong, go back to the Cabinet, go back to the Parliament and repeal the law,” President of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers’ Union, Oswald Robinson told iWitness News on Thursday.
He was speaking of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves and his government’s refusal to reinstate teachers dismissed over the vaccine mandate that came into effect last December.
The government has said it is willing to re-employ unvaccinated workers, including teachers, who reapply and are willing to abide by certain protocols, including the wearing of face masks, hand sanitisation, and regular testing for COVID-19.
However, the union, on Thursday, again, called out its members in protest and an energetic group of union members and their supporters — including Leader of the Opposition Godwin Friday and other opposition lawmakers, marched around Kingstown — carrying placards and chanting slogans.
However, the prime minister has made it clear that the government is re-hiring and not reinstating teachers, telling iWitness News, on Tuesday, that reinstatement would mean that the government is saying it did something wrong when it passed the vaccine mandate law.
‘a cabinet and a government of mistakes’
But Robinson told iWitness News that the government’s actions are in keeping with its modus operandi.
“Well, whatever the government is doing now, it is already consistent that the government is making a lot of errors. The fact that a cabinet could make a decision and come back and say they never said so, the fact that they have put sanitation workers on the front line and come back and said it was a mistake, this is a cabinet and a government of mistakes,” the trade unionist said.
“And we have a history of the government making a lot of mistakes,” he said, referring to the 2005 collective agreement, a section of which the prime minister later said was “aspirational”.
“That was a mistake by the government. They fired Otto Sam, transferred him to a position demoted him, that was a mistake,” Robinson further said of the former educator who was transferred to the emergency management agency and later fired.
“So, a government of mistakes consistently, needs to demit office. And that is the loss that the government has, you’re already losing the teachers in this country and our public servants, you have infringed on their right to conscience, which is wrong. You have passed an act that has discriminated against workers in this country. That has to be wrong, so you could never win,” Robinson said.
The union leader said that Gonsalves and his government have found themselves “between a rock and a hard place.
“He created it because they’re not listening. There’re so many things that the government has done wrong,” he said, adding that the government has abandoned social dialogue.
“You cannot find yourself out of the situation impacted by COVID by making unilateral decisions. That is what the government has done,” Robinson said.
He said the public sector workers who were dismissed all have a letter of appointment that stated the conditions of their employment.
“We have a collective agreement that states conditions. None of those instruments mentioned anything about mandatory vaccination. So, the government is wrong. All how he turns it, they are wrong, and you need to acknowledge a wrong, turn away from this wicked act, reinstate the workers and let the nation’s children get quality education,” the teachers’ union head said.
“You can’t be talking about quality education and you have so many quality teachers, experienced persons out of the classroom.”
He said that the fact that the primary school exit examination pass rate declined by a percentage point “tells you that the government, again, has gone wrong.
“So, this is a government of wrongs, and we need to correct the wrongs, you still have some time to do so and we look forward that you do the honourable thing.”
On Tuesday, Gonsalves told the media that about 55 teachers had reapplied for employment and that his plea for other to do the same was not a trick.
But Robinson said that the education policy of 1992 “clearly states that you must be teacher-trained to enter the classroom”.
He said that some of the people who the government hired after the mandate came into effect and class as teachers “are not really teachers. They are YES workers (Youth Empowerment Service), they are SET (Support for Education and Training) workers. And we know for a fact that a number of these persons who were on contract reapplied,” Robinson told iWitness News.
“Of course, there may be a few persons who decided to reapply. That’s their right. That’s their individual right. They know the heat that they are feeling and whether they could withstand it for how long. So, that’s your right.
“But the majority of our teachers stuck to their guns and decided that they’re not going to reapply. And that’s why many of the teachers are here who took that decision and in general membership or the union ratified, approved that decision. And we are here in solidarity with all workers, advocating for justice, that they repeal the law, reinstate and renumerate for all damages.”
‘we’re not taking any chances’
The Teachers’ Union and the Public Service Union, along with their members, have sued the government over the mandate, and the trial is set for Nov. 29.
Asked whether the teachers’ union would withdraw the case if the government does as the union asks, Robinson said:
“Well, you see, this is a government of broken promises. And that is why we’re not taking any chances. Because at one end, the government was saying, rehire, then they said it never said rehire. Seemed like they were dreaming — in dreamland. And another time they came back and said, re-employ, but not automatic reinstatement.
“So, the point of the matter is, we have to seek damages. So, to save the face of the government what you need to do now, reinstate the workers with all the benefits. But before you could reinstate, you have to repeal the law.
“Go back to the Parliament that you did in the wee hours, four o’clock in the morning and you pass this wicked act. And so, whether we have to withdraw the case, if you repeal, it’s something we’ll discuss with our legal team and see because that’s a legal matter. But, at this point in time, we are going full force with our legal issue in court.”
The union leader reiterated the trial dates, saying, “The end of November — first of December, there’ll be a trial: Commissioner police, chief personnel officer, Minister of Health, … all those posts, we’re taking a trial on them, and the judge will deliberate.”
He noted that the union has a day of prayer on Wednesday, ahead of Thursday’s march.
“And we have put this matter in the hands of the Creator. And we are looking forward to a victory,” Robinson said, adding that after the victory, there will be “a massive rally of celebration because the children of St. Vincent and Grenadines will again have quality education and quality education is a good foundation for development of St. Vincent and Grenadines.
“It would also reduce unemployment; it would also reduce poverty and any right-thinking government would want to see poverty reduced and unemployment reduced. This wicked act created unemployment.”
He said that the most recent figures showed that unemployment among youth was 33%.
“… and now you have fired the workers, it has escalated. So, this is a government of broken promises and wrong. And you need to come and have dialogue with the union. Don’t come and tell the workers don’t talk.
“The last time they had an issue with Buccama, was the same government was telling the workers go to your unions; unionise. But on the other hand, you’re telling the public sector workers don’t listen to your union when we are calling for social dialogue. That’s a way we can really resolve a lot of the issues,” Robinson told iWitness News.