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Proposed sale of BTC sparks controversy

After almost 11 years of dialogue, discovery and disappointment, the Bahamas Telecommunications Company(BTC)is closer than ever to being privatized, with the government proposing to sell 51 percent of the company to British-based Cable and Wireless Communications(CWC)for$210 million.

The government signed a Memorandum of Understanding(MOU)with CWC on December 1 and revealed only cursory information on the deal.

However, that milestone stirred up the angst of the company’s unions and created a firestorm of ire that spread across many trade unions in The Bahamas.

The Bahamas Communications and Public Officers Union(BCPOU)and the Bahamas Communications and Public Managers Union(BCPMU)members, who do not want BTC sold to CWC, stormed their employer’s head office on John F. Kennedy Drive on December 8.

They ripped open a gate that was hurriedly being closed by security officers, marched around the building seven times, and formed a human chain that encircled the building in protest of the company’s imminent sale.

The following week, BTC union members took their fight to Parliament.

They staged a march to again protest BTC’s sale, moving a crowd of hundreds from the Southern Recreation Grounds to Rawson Square, where they were met with opposition by police.

The protest momentarily turned ugly when protestors overran the barricades that barred them from entering the square, forcing police to beat some of them back with batons.

Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, who was inside the House of Assembly at the time, left quickly without talking to protestors or reporters.

However, Leader of the Progressive Liberal Party(PLP)Perry Christie publicly accused Ingraham and his Cabinet members of being afraid to face the unions gathered outside and of violating his and opposition members’rights by suspending Parliament without allowing them to speak.

While the unions are interested in knowing what is in the MOU, they are more interested in stopping the deal dead in the water.

BCPOU President Bernard Evans took a hard line approach to the news of the proposed sale almost immediately.

“We don’t want to work for you(CWC). Go home,”he shouted toward the building during the union’s initial industrial action.

The PLP took the opportunity to attack the government’s alleged lack of transparency on the deal inciting a volley of accusations from each side over the way the issue of BTC’s privatization was handled over the past 11 years.

In a statement issued by the Cabinet Office, the government argued that the PLP’s proposed deal to sell BTC to a group called Bluewater would have only netted$150 million at the time of closing.

“The sale price of$260 million(suggested by the PLP)was nothing more than a gimmick designed to deceive and mislead,”the statement said.

The PLP argued that the deal reached by the FNM with Cable and Wireless for$210 million is tantamount to giving the company away and that withholding the MOU was a sign of a kind of insecurity about the deal.

“This is a fundamental issue to the country,”Christie said.

“The question is why is the government clandestinely dealing with this issue…deep in secret?If they had an agreement as they say, then they ought to be able to demonstrate their confidence by allowing the public to see it.”

The fight for BTC is just beginning, according to union leaders, who have threatened a national strike if the government does not relent on the deal.

The cause even brought the National Congress of Trade Unions of The Bahamas and the Trade Union Congress, two national umbrella union groups, together in an attempt to further convince the government not to sell a majority stake in BTC to CWC. However, Ingraham contended recently that he would never relent on the sale or bow to the pressure from the trade unions.

“The president of the union, Mr. Evans, and others are making lots of noise and making lots of threats and of course you know, that does not get anywhere with me,”said Ingraham. Ingraham told workers,”When you walk off your job, if you do, there is no guarantee that you can come back to that job no guarantee.”

And he asked the Bahamian public to stand with the government over the workers of BTC.

“And so if you love yourselves and the population of The Bahamas more than you love the few people who are working at BTC, then you will stand with the government.,”Ingraham said.

The government is hoping to finalize the deal by mid-February.

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