By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” Oct. 7, 2022)
“We have been oppressed a great deal, we have been exploited a great deal, and we have been disregarded a great deal. It is our weakness that has led to our being oppressed, exploited and disregarded. Now we want a revolution–a revolution which brings an end to our weakness, so that we are never again exploited, oppressed or humiliated.” — Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania.
The Vincentian government is very oppressive to its citizens. It actively fosters the exploitation of citizens. Take its pension policies. Workers who retire are made to wait years before they can collect benefits from the National Insurance Service (NIS). Last weekend, a ULP spin doctor chased a former VINLEC employee off the radio when he called to speak of his plight. The worker explained that the company’s management forced employees to join the CLICO pension plan, which collapsed in 2009. As a result, they lost that pension. Now that mandatory retirement rendered workers unemployed, the NIS rules command workers to wait years to collect benefits. Some may die before they receive a cent.
Another under-the-radar government policy is the decision by the NIS to increase from 500 to 750 payments before a worker becomes eligible for NIS pension benefits. In this society of high unemployment, this increase guarantees that thousands of workers will come to the end of their working lives and be ineligible for benefits necessary to tide them over during their retirement years. Hundreds of elderly persons are compelled to seek employment, mainly with security firms, to make ends meet. They work for years only to be told they have already retired and are not entitled to benefits when their bodies can no longer take the grind of daily work.
Or take the attitude of management at the government’s Bank of St Vincent and the Grenadines (BOSVG). The Wages Council ordered from as early as 2008 that a work day is eight hours, inclusive of lunch. This means that workers were owed time and a half for the extra hour they worked from at least 2008. Every other bank in SVG, except BOSVG, made the calculation and paid the workers what was due. In the end, current BOSVG employees were given an ex gratia “gift” equivalent to eight weeks’ pay. The bank management claimed that paying the workers what was legally owed to them would bankrupt the institution.
Imagine that, BOSVG, having unjustly enriched itself with millions of dollars from exploiting the workers, denied owing the employees and agreed to offer a pittance. Worse, the BOSVG concluded that it had no obligation to pay workers it made redundant before the payout was made.
PM Gonsalves and Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves knowingly colluded with the bank’s management in the exploitation of the workers. Neither man, who shouts “Labour love!” loudest, used their influence to say no, not under my watch. Burns Bonadie, the sell-out labour leader whose union, CTAWU, represent the workers, went along with the plan. Because of solid union leadership in Grenada, FirstCaribbean International Bank agreed to pay workers, including those who left before the agreement going back to 2000. Many BOSVG workers claimed they felt coerced to accept the “gift” rather than hold out for what was owed to them. They didn’t want to lose their jobs. Management told employees they could not challenge the bank and remain employed.
Add to these difficulties the hundreds of public and private sector workers dismissed due to the government’s COVID mandates and the mental health crisis made worse by these policies.
Rather than stand in solidarity with workers, the government fosters divisions among the people and exploits the fractures it creates. The sooner the majority of people recognise that this government does not serve their purpose, the better it will be for all concerned. In light of all the bad things happening to Vincentians, why has it taken so long for the people to see that this is a big-shot government rather than a government that represents and defends the poor, vulnerable and exploited?
The rich and powerful dominate every facet of Vincentian society. They reap the benefits of the labour of workers and mercilessly exploit them. The workers have little or no avenue for redress. The labour laws are business-friendly. Workers found to be unfairly dismissed get little or nothing. The laws against wrongful dismissal offer little or no protection to workers. Many workers give decades of service only to be discarded with little or nothing apart from their paltry pay cheque. We have a growing class of working poor who can barely keep body and soul together.
Two of the four labour unions have been hijacked by the government. Burns Bonadie, General Secretary of the Commercial Technical and Allied Workers Union (CTAWU), and Noel Jackson of the National Workers Movement do more advocacy weekly for the governing party than for the unions. In the recent salary negotiations, neither Burns nor Jackson bothered to present proposals for salary increases or for the general welfare of the workers. Veteran unionists like Ebenezer Joshua, Cyril Roberts, Caspar London, Jerry Haywood and Sonny Boyce ought to turn in their graves.
The Teachers’ Union and the Public Service Union try desperately to keep government officials’ feet to the fire. Their leaders, who enter the public square advocating for workers, meet with hostility from our so-called labour government. Government leaders spend time and resources to split and divide the unions, buy off some leaders and create a hostile environment for trade unionism.
And to top it off, the government disregards the rulings and orders of the law courts. Declarations and orders to the government to pay costs and damages are routinely scoffed at. We are rapidly becoming a nation of men rather than a country of laws.
Sixty years ago, Malcolm X, speaking of the American government, told black people in Harlem:
“‘Oh, I say it again, ya been had/ Ya been took/ Bamboozled,/ Led astray/ Run amok/ This is what he does.”
The time has come for us to bring an end to our weakness so that we are never again exploited, oppressed or humiliated.
*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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