Feature Address By Prime Minister, Freundel Stuart, At The 70th Annual General Conference Of The National Union Of Public Workers On Thursday, March 27, 2014
Members of Cabinet,??Members of the Diplomatic Corps,??Permanent Secretaries/Heads of Department,??President of the National Union of Public Workers ??? Brother Walter Maloney,??General Secretary ??? Brother Dennis Clarke,??Deputy General Secretary ??? Sister Roslyn Smith,??3rd Vice President ??? Brother Charles Bostic,??Chaplain ??? Reverend DeVere Murrell,??Specially Invited Guests,??Ladies and Gentlemen.
I was pleased to receive, and even more pleased to accept, your invitation to deliver this address at the 70th anniversary conference of the National Union of Public Workers. Three score years and ten is an important milestone in any life, whether of a person or of an organisation.??As we celebrate what is a Platinum Anniversary for the NUPW, let us not forget the long and difficult road that it has travelled; the challenges that it has faced and the successes that it has registered; and even the many lives that the NUPW has built.
The NUPW began life in 1944 as the Barbados Civil Service Association. This was a mere seven years after the 1937 disturbances, which led to the Moyne Commission whose report was published in 1945, the same year the Second World War ended and the Cold War began. 1944 was also three years after the formation of the Barbados Workers Union in 1941.
Inviting a politician to address the NUPW in this anniversary year is significant when one considers that the two main agents of change thrown up by the disturbances of the 1930s were the mass political party and the trade union. These two institutions were key in the major social, political and economic developments in Barbados over the last 65 to 70 years, since the hundred years that had elapsed between Emancipation in 1838, and 1938, had not seen much change of direct benefit to the workers. The workers??? agenda was lagging behind in education, health, housing, transport, the provision of a social safety net, economic enfranchisement and other major respects.
Aided for an appreciable part of that time period by the enabling features of a Cold War environment, political parties and trade unions promoted mass based education, accessible, available and affordable health care, the provision of housing solutions for the mass of the population and a social safety net.
The challenges faced by the Barbados Civil Service Association and other trade unions in their early years derived from the fact that 100 years after Emancipation, they still had to fight for the benefits which Emancipation was supposed to provide. As the trade unions could not secure these benefits by themselves, they had to work in association with political parties in government. Since Governments had to take the lead, the public sector workers had a special role to play in the forward movement of Barbados and the other islands in the Caribbean. These two forces, therefore, have co-authored the development of modern Barbados.
In April 1964 the Trade Union Act was passed revising and consolidating all of the laws relating to trade unions, and in that same year a Strike Committee of the Civil Service Association was set up. In 1969 the name of the Association was changed to the National Union of Public Workers.
When we review the post-Independence period up to the present, we take note that the NUPW had to face four major downturns in the economy of Barbados: the first between 1973-75, resulting from the oil crisis of 1973; the second between 1981-83 resulting from the second oil crisis; the third between 1991-93 resulting from the Gulf War; and the current crisis from 2008 to the present as a result of the financial crisis in the United States of America.
In the majority of these crises the union demonstrated a commendable sense of responsibility. I say the majority and not all because in 1976, the NUPW demanded a 60 % salary increase at a time when the country was facing its largest current account deficit since the year 1961. Salaries had to be legislated on that occasion at 35 % at the bottom and 12 ?? % at the top. Then, by intriguing coincidence, after the General Election of that year, the General Secretary of the Union was appointed a Parliamentary Secretary in the new administration.
So, in the face of the tremendous challenges of the past 70 years, the NUPW could not have survived if it had not benefitted from astute leadership, rationally assessing the situation in Barbados through the years, and then drawing carefully from the philosophy and practices of the international Trade Union Movement to meet these challenges, in the process developing and strengthening the negotiation and other life skills that were so urgently needed.
This sense of responsibility has led the NUPW to survive all tests of its resilience and viability, as it has always understood that it had to focus not only on wages and salaries but on other conditions of service. Matters like training for public workers, and legislative protection under laws such as the Safety and Health at Work Act, have increasingly taken centre stage in its fight for workers rights.
The conditions under which public servants work have a direct impact on both their wellbeing and their productivity. Government???s rental bill for office space for public workers is fast approaching $80 million per annum, proof, were any needed, that accommodation is being treated as a key condition of service, and one for which the NUPW has been prepared to fight. Government continues to demonstrate its commitment to remedying the serious accommodation problem, with modern facilities being provided at Warrens and at Webster Business Park, among others.
Other related non-wage/non-salary issues have engaged the attention of the NUPW in recent times. These relate to the right of public officers to receive a pension at all, having been dismissed for misconduct, or to receive it immediately, in circumstances where that officer???s post in the public service has been abolished. The judgement of the Caribbean Court of Justice in the Winton Campbell case has presented a particular problem for the Union, in that the Court has decided that pension rights do not accrue immediately on the abolition of a post but that the affected public servant must wait until he or she has attained the pensionable age. Both of these matters continue to engage the Government???s careful attention since the implications for public expenditure cannot be ignored as the pension bill of the Government continues to spiral upwards.
Examples abound of the extended scope of matters that occupy the attention of the NUPW today, and at every stage what stands out is the maturity of this trade union, even as it relentlessly defends the interests of its members.??A troubling issue which the Government and the Public Sector Unions must tackle and have been tackling is the size of the public service and its effect on public expenditure. But this is not merely a question of the payment of wages and salaries.
Always attached to the issue of wages and salaries, as indicated earlier, are costs related to conditions of service and ultimately to pension payments. Therefore, Governments of necessity must control the number of persons that they employ. The fact has to be faced that everyone who wants a job in Government is not going to be able to get it, as this is not financially sustainable.
Forty???two years ago, Mr. William Demas, who later became Secretary General of CARICOM, addressed the Caribbean Congress of Labour in Georgetown on the topic ???The Role of the Labour Movement in the Development of the Caribbean.??? During the course of that address he made the following observation:
???Now a large part of Government recurrent expenditure consists of salaries and wages. It seems to me that one of the main reasons ( and here I am being very blunt and many probably will not like what I am saying) why West Indian Governments have to borrow so much from abroad and to beg for financial aid from abroad is the fact that they have not been able to generate sufficient surpluses on current account largely because their wages and salaries bill has been growing very rapidly. We can check this out by examining the Government Accounts Data over the last ten years and we will see the very large growth in personal emoluments and in the wages bill. This of course does not help Governments. It makes them more dependent on foreign borrowing and foreign aid.???
So, long before today, we were being given warning signs in this matter. Indeed as far back as 2001, the then Government of Barbados was advised that the public service ??? then 26,000 persons, should be downsized by 10,000 persons, over a 10 year period. This advice was on the basis that it took 36 cents out of every dollar of expenditure to pay wages and salaries and this was thought not to be sustainable. That path was not pursued.
Since then the public service has grown much larger and it now takes 54 cents out of every dollar to meet public service wages and salaries. When this information is placed in the context of declining Government revenues, we can see why action has to be taken at this time to change the way that we do business and to restructure our public administration. The Government needs the cooperation of the NUPW and the other trade unions in this regard.
It should occasion no surprise that, in an adversarial partisan political environment, the elasticity of language would be exploited to its outermost limits. In the context of the current process of retrenchment in the public service, a disgruntled political opposition and its publicists have therefore claimed that the government misled the electorate of Barbados during the last election campaign by assuring the country that, economically speaking, all was well when, in fact, the Government knew that the economy was facing challenges.
I should like to say that, in the context of a downturn as sustained and as serious as that through which the world is still passing, I know of no political leader in the western world bold enough to suggest that the economy of his country was beyond peril.??What I did say repeatedly, was that while massive layoffs and some industrial tumult were already disfiguring life in the other countries, Barbados was continuing to hold its own. Barbados is an open economy, highly dependent on imports. And I said we were holding our own because on the advice I was receiving and on which I felt able to rely, our foreign reserves were holding steady and we were continuing to earn enough foreign currency to allow us to deal with our current obligations.
At all material times, we were aware that the Government was running a larger than usual fiscal deficit, but since we had no sense of the full depth or the likely duration of the crisis I thought that we would leave employment levels in the public service untouched for as long as circumstances allowed. The circumstances to which I was referring were those relating to the stability of our foreign reserves.
For countries like Barbados, the internationally accepted standard for adequate import cover is 12 weeks. In the month of December 2012, the foreign reserves of Barbados stood at $1,457.3M or the equivalent of 19.5 weeks of import cover. By the month of April 2013, the reserves were still holding at $1,386.4M or the equivalent of 18.4 weeks of the import cover. In the month of May, 2013, however, the reserves dropped to $1,320.2M or the equivalent of 17.5 weeks of import cover. In the month of June, 2013 the reserves dropped again to $1,217.3M or the equivalent of 16.1 weeks of import cover.
Not until May 2013, therefore, was there any evidence that our foreign reserves position was being destabilized. At that point the Government sounded the appropriate alarm. I have continued to contend that no Government embarks on a program of retrenchment whimsically or wantonly for the purpose of inconveniencing workers. Retrenchment is a cost cutting mechanism. If a Government cannot afford to pay workers because its financial position is challenged, it has no other choice. The Government of Barbados has done the best it could have done in all of the circumstances in this regard.
The National Union of Public Workers, for its part, is to be commended for the professionalism it has pursued, the thoroughness it has displayed, and the stamina it has shown, in its effort to ensure that the public workers got nothing but the fairest deal, in the circumstances.??The conduct of this Union as well as that of the other unions, who have all acted responsibly throughout this very difficult process, has accentuated the need for trade union activity in Barbados to be protected and encouraged; and for the social partnership between labour, capital and the state to be further consolidated.
I do not belong to that school of thought that believes that, in season and out of season, trade unions should be in an adversarial relationship with employers. That belief reflects a by no means too novel, but always very deadly, form of illiteracy. While always keeping an eagle eye out for the interests of the workers, the good trade union will also always be like a sensitive seismograph registering all the fluctuations taking place in the economic and social and political environment and will locate the interests of the workers and the response of the union accordingly.
The social democratic thrust in Barbados and in other parts of the Caribbean has undeniably been spearheaded by the trade union, as one of the two mass based institutions thrown up by the democratic uprisings of the 1930???s.??The trade union has, therefore, contributed much to the development of Barbados and the Caribbean, and only the unenlightened and the churlish would want to deny that fact. That social democratic agenda is not up for negotiation. Its principal items of health, education, housing, public transport, economic enfranchisement and a participatory democratic ethos are as important today as was the case at the time of the Moyne Commission Report in 1945.
So far as the NUPW is concerned, as a public service union, the employer with whom it deals predominantly is the Government. Public workers, generally speaking, have a relationship with their employer, slightly different from that of workers in the private sector. They enjoy a greater security of tenure, except for those employed with statutory corporations which have certain private sector features about them; the terms and conditions of their employment are more flexible than the terms and conditions in the private sector; and their relationship with their employer is based on status rather than on contract.??The relationship between the Government as employer and the union is rarely adversarial or hostile. Of course we must admit that, with statutory corporations or companies that are Government-owned, that premise is often tested.
The reason for this unique relationship is that both sides begin by knowing what the ground rules are. Government financial information is never a secret; it is known that there is a connection between government???s agreements with the union and the general public welfare; and since the Public Service Act has been proclaimed, both procedurally and substantively, the provisions of that Act have to be observed.
In the best and in the worst of times, the Union and the Government have been able to resolve differences within the context of that understanding.??This relationship has been able to virtually guarantee Barbados and Barbadians the consistently high quality of service rendered by the Public Service of Barbados. Public Servants come in for much criticism, for the most part, wholly unjustified. My own experience has satisfied me, however, that this country can continue to boast of having one of the best public services in the entire Western Hemisphere. I have never expected perfection from the public servants of Barbados since perfection is the sacred preserve of the Almighty but, that our public servants have, generally, been faithful to their country???s cause in the discharge of their responsibilities, I can boldly assert.
What I expect and need, however, is an acknowledgement that this is a time of fundamental change in the global economy and in every society on earth.??Globalization and technology have literally brought the world to the fingertips of Barbadians, and thus there is no question whatsoever that the challenges we currently face are part of the complex and profound changes taking place globally. With the Internet and the computer, Ipad and cellphone, no one can claim to be ignorant of the facts, unlike our experience in earlier downturns.
The new global dispensation is also one in which the emerging superpowers can produce the standard goods and services which consumers crave, at a price much lower than we can produce them. They can also produce and dispatch teams of workers to do jobs at a lower cost than local workers, even in our own backyards! Hence in the global marketplace we must find niches in which we have not only a comparative but also an absolute advantage. For example, no one should be able to beat us at producing our distinct cultural products for sale.
I am moved to reflect on a quotation from a speech by Barack Obama during the Presidential campaign of 2008 that….. ???Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.??? At this time of relentless change, it is vital that:
??? Each public worker ??? be he or she a, clerical officer, permanent secretary, financial controller, maid or gardener, or the holder of any other post – must value his or her job, as only productivity can sustain a job and, that of course, includes, wherever possible, facilitating foreign investment directly or indirectly. For the investor or tourist is impacted by all aspects of his or her environment as well as by those persons who work directly in the industry concerned. Public Sector reform must become a living thing, and we need the support of the NUPW and the other unions for this to be so.
??? Those who are now temporarily without work must be encouraged to use all the available facilities at their disposal: the NIS support; the retraining fund of $10 million; and counseling and financial advice provided by various agencies, especially advice to help them to retool, regroup and relearn! The Government appreciates the NUPW???s support for its members and looks forward to the active promotion of the use of the Retraining Fund.
??? All public workers – indeed all workers – must have an interest in, and take an active part in, the restructuring of our economy and society, each in his or her own way. The NUPW has a vital role in helping to provide the public education of workers, and to inspire the engagement that is so necessary at this time in our history;
??? Our private sector partners in the Social Partnership must be encouraged to play an active role in the creation of sustainable jobs for the nation in creative new enterprises. Support for the exploration of creative new self ??? employment opportunities is a more general national responsibility.
Barbados, a small island developing country, ranked at No 1 in Latin America and the Caribbean, and No 3 in the Americas, in the 2013 United Nations Human Development Index, has the capacity – when faced with the challenges which have bedevilled us over the last few years – to show the world that we have a caring, creative and confident society, which is God-fearing, and that we know how to stretch our hands out in assistance to one another. Let us face these tests head on and show the world that Barbados continues to be different.
I could not close this address without highlighting the fact that, over the years, the NUPW has fostered a culture that led to the emergence of outstanding national leaders such as: Sis Gladwyn Campbell, Horatio Cooke, Sir William Douglas, Cecil Drakes, Nigel Harper, Sir Harcourt Lewis, Walter Maloney, Cedric Murrell, Sis Millicent Small, Sis Roslyn Smith, Algernon Symmonds, Hilton Vaughn, Erskine Ward, and Keith Yearwood, to name a few.
Ambassador Joseph Goddard who gave 34 years of service to NUPW, 30 of which were as General Secretary, is now the Permanent Representative of Barbados to the United Nations. On his departure he was succeeded by the well-seasoned and committed former Assistant General Secretary, now General Secretary, Dennis Clarke. Derek Alleyne, Assistant General Secretary is, as I understand it, on leave of absence.
The achievements of the NUPW are far too numerous to list here. The longevity and success of the NUPW speak to its legacy of resilience, and that resilience in turn speaks to the discipline, creativity and strength which have been its defining features. The strength of your leadership, and of your members, has been your major asset. This strength is needed more than ever today, as we face an uncertain and turbulent future.??
We have just spent the last week debating the Appropriation Bill for 2014-2015 in the House of Assembly. The nation is aware that this is a testing time for all Barbadians. This time requires that Barbadians realize that this downturn is a wake-up call telling us that we cannot continue to wait for some other person or for some other time to make things better. We cannot continue to use our education and talents just to find jobs which others are expected to create for us. We must create new jobs. We cannot afford to use a job as a mere pathway to our further development at the expense of the job itself. We must invest productive energy in the jobs that we do.
My message to the leadership and members of the NUPW today is therefore that there is unfinished work to be done in Barbados. Reform and restructuring are the order of the day. Every one of us has the responsibility to become a change agent, for, to repeat the quotation referred to earlier:?????Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time???. I offer this food for thought as I proudly declare this 70th Annual General Conference of the NUPW open.??
I thank you.