The New Year has only just begun but already there is mounting industrial tension in regional economies that can only leave one to wonder how all of this is eventually going to evolve.
First, in Barbados, the powerful Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) is at loggerheads with the telecommunications provider, LIME, over the company’s decision to terminate the services of some of its workers. In response to failed calls to reverse its decision to dismiss the workers, the BWU has threatened an Island-wide shutdown that LIME has described as grossly irresponsible at this critical juncture in the country’s economic life.
At the time of writing this column, there was no official word on further action on either side. However, a major strike at this time would have severe implications for the economy and therefore one could only hope that good sense prevails and that the relevant intervention by the Ministry of Labour results in bringing both sides back to the negotiating table so that a resolution to the ongoing dispute can be found as soon as possible.
Over in St. Lucia, the Government and Trade Union are locked in a rather tense industrial dispute over salary increases for public officers. Based on publicly available information, the Union is calling for a 15% increase in wages and salary for the next triennium.
The Government, on the other hand, according to the Prime Minister, has made an offer of a lump sum payment that would amount to roughly a 3% increase over the negotiation period. That offer from the Government is clearly in keeping with the dire financial and economic circumstances facing the country as outlined in a recent address to the Nation by the Prime Minister.
Indeed, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony hit the nail on the head when in his address to St. Lucians on January 06, 2013, he noted that: “We do not need indecision; we need certainty in these difficult times. I believe, like every citizen, in a just wage for fair and productive labour. What is fair or just is always debatable because so many factors come into play in arriving at a conclusion.
One thing is clear though: in the final analysis, the payment of a wage that is deemed to be fair and just depends on the employer’s ability to pay.”
Based on all that we have seen and heard over the past few years with respect to fiscal deficits, national debt, and the cost of living across the region, there is no doubt that public officers in St. Lucia as well as other Caribbean countries are badly in need of a pay hike.
But, at the same time, Governments can only agree to increases in wages and salaries if those increases are affordable now and in the future. Hence, the prevailing financial and economic circumstances in regional economies must be seen as the cornerstone of any salary negotiations.
In the interim, it is important for the Union and Government in St. Lucia to recognise that all available options must be brought to the table, whether conventional or not. And whatever the final outcome, protecting the country’s economy should be the broader goal in mind.
(Dr. Brian Francis, the former Permanent Secretary in the local Ministry of Finance, is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics at the Cave Hill Campus in Bridgetown, Barbados of the University of the West Indies)