Stedson Wiltshire (Red Plastic Bag) gave a vivid description of what is seen on Kadooment Day in a calypso song entitled Something Happening. The joyful song presents a stark contrast to the sobering reality unfolding in Barbados. With a backdrop of Covid-19, the cause of labour unrest is deeply disturbing as it is related to changes in the Severance Pay Act and the refusal of some hotels to pay their potion of the workers’ severance pay. As the reality of this crisis sets in, anguish, lack of information, confusion and frustration confront a large section of the population and now a once docile people seem to be erupting. Protests have become a fixture on the landscape with 40% unemployed predominately in the tourism sector; no one knows how this will end but something is definitely happening.
There is no comparison in recent history to what is now unfolding. Complexity and growth of the economy makes it distinct from the 1930’s but it is noteworthy that there was no labour union to prevent the downward spiral that culminated in the 1937 riots in Barbados. Trade unionism came into existence after the riots to protect the rights of labour in 1941. What is mindboggling is that it was out of the struggle of the black working class that both the Barbados Workers Union (BWU) and the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) were conceived and born. Now the relationship is akin to 2 children abandoning their mother. This should never have become a matter of political expediency as the BWU depends on the black working class for financial support and the Barbados Labour party depends on the black working class (the largest voting group) for votes. The action of both has shown that they have joined forces and abandoned this class.
In contrast with the song, one can see questionable union actions. One can query the BWU’s agreement to the BEST Program as it offers less than favourable relief to the workers than to the hotels. The program provides financial assistance to hotels and a wage subsidy to workers but no severance. It was stated that only $30 Million of the $300 Million dollars has been taken by the hotels. Part of the remaining $ 270 Million dollars can be used as severance for the workers. Essentially the BEST program is fundamentally flawed as it does not contain a severance payment option.
One can also query why the recently held press conference only resulted in a solution for the workers of Club Barbados and did not take into consideration the thousands of other unemployed workers. What was required is an across the board solution for the hotel industry and any other affected industries. There were so many twists and turns regarding the story of the workers of Club Barbados that it is difficult to decipher but yet it does not justify treatment as a special case as it leaves out others whose plight is the same.
Both the Prime Minister and Ms. Moore chastised the Media but one cannot imagine how the secret of 40% unemployed in Barbados could be kept, not discussed or their protests not covered if they take to the streets. A fair Press is not the enemy of the people. Highlighting these stories humanized the suffering of the workers. They became real people with real problems and in need of real solutions. We all felt their pain. Change is never a factor that comes into play with silence or secrecy; with them ignorance pervades. What the media can do in addition to highlighting the protest is to utilize the top corner of the new paper to daily post unemployment numbers, NIS payouts as a show of solidarity with the workers and carry stories of how this crisis has affected individual persons and neighbourhoods.
One can see government as having created an environment for the lack of trust. The role of government in any democratic society is to provide an enabling environment for all to flourish. This is exhibited in the provision of social services and laws. When the Severance Payment Act was amended in August 2020, the reason for its changes and the why now could not be justified as it was the midst of the current pandemic. The changes now extend the layoff period from 13 to 22 weeks before they can file for severance and that employees must give 4 weeks notice to the employer prior to the end of the 22 weeks period. It also states that the employer can contest severance. It is a punitive amendment to the law and has led to much confusion and ultimately the amended act is disadvantageous as the underlying principle is to disqualify workers from obtaining severance payments. The level of confidence in the government with regards to the treatment to workers is now at an all-time low.
One can also see that this is not only an economic issue. It is also a matter of social justice. Less than favourable treatment has been meted out to one specific class of the population; the black working class. The same people who for almost 400 years have been feeling the brunt of what occurs in the Barbadian society. This class has the highest rate of unemployment, highest incidence of crime, the highest rate of minimum wages, have a high cost of living, poor housing, reduced access to potable water, are in need of proper roads and combined they pay the highest taxes. The only positive thing that they as a group possess is votes at election time. It is these same people who are in need and are being denied the money that should be theirs. One of the women, a former Club Barbados worker lamented that she feels like George Floyd with the weight of someone’s foot on her neck and that she could not breathe. Do their lives and livelihood matter?
One hopes that now we are in the post Nelson era, that governance comes with an aspect of social justice; that no decisions are made on the behalf of the people without consideration of how the disadvantaged black working class will be affected and that there will be a living wage, programs put in place not for pit toilets but for creating wealth to remove vicious the cycle of poverty. If the opportunity to create wealth can be provided to the already privileged it should also be provided to the black working class. The government saw it fit to compulsorily acquire property on Bay Street to give to a developer. It must also do the same for the black working class through co-operatives for agriculture, business development and housing. It is hoped that laws which still seem to be derived from the slave codes will be removed from the laws of Barbados. This is in reference to laws being written from the punitive point of view of ‘let us deny them that colonial mentality’; as though some things are still just too good for the black working class of Barbados.
The irony of these developments is that both the BWU and BLP have bitten the hand that feeds them.