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Labor unrest rears its head again

If there had been some hope and expectation that cooler temperatures would cool the tempers of disgruntled labor unions, action by staff at the National Insurance Board (NIB) and at the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island last week dispelled such notions.

Union of Public Officers President Ghion Roach, representing workers at NIB, told the media that NIB workers had reached their limit and were no longer willing to tolerate the government’s dragging their feet in negotiations for a new contract. Armed with a strike certificate, Roach indicated that the workers were ready to turn what was so far just a “tea break” into a full-fledged strike.

Meanwhile some 200 members of the Bahamas Hotel Catering and Allied Workers Union picketed the Atlantis resort at the peak of the U.S. Thanksgiving Day holiday when the resort was enjoying robust occupancy. These workers, too, complained about the length of time it was taking to conclude negotiations for a new contract between the union and the Bahamas Hotel Employers Association.

The NIB dispute is one of many unsettled labor disputes from this past summer that have come back to haunt the government even as the economy shudders with the fallout from Dorian.

First, junior doctors felt compelled to walk off their jobs to bring focus to the non-payment of some overtime services.

Then, public officers felt obliged to march on Cabinet to get movement on the government’s callous disregard of commitments to raise public officers’ salaries.

And that at a time when public officers saw their buying power shrink as value-added tax (VAT) rose from 7 percent to 12 percent at the mid-year point.

We are not surprised then that NIB workers, faced with the same tax increases and reduced buying power, are taking exception to the failure of the government to come to the negotiating table notwithstanding a commitment to do so before the end of last month.

What is worse, the government continues to preach austerity after hiking VAT in July 2018 and now proposing to permit an additional fee to be attached to electricity bills to defray costs of the refinancing of Bahamas Power and Light’s debt burden.

Adding insult to injury, the minister for financial services, trade and industry and immigration, Elsworth Johnson, suggested on Thursday that Bahamians needed to better manage their money and reduce spending on unnecessary things like travel even while his government reports that it will expand its travel budget by some $4 million.

It is critically important that the government not permit these public sector labor issues to fester.

In the private sector, hotel workers have been urged by their employers, and also by the government, to consider the critical importance of the sector to the health of the Bahamian economy and to desist from any industrial action. Advice proffered by the minister of tourism, Dionisio D’Aguilar, for workers to be patient did not sit well. Frustrations at the inability of their union to get a new agreement with their hotel employers boiled over onto picket lines.

Atlantis is the only major New Providence resort that is unionized. Under the terms of the expired but subsisting contract, workers are subject to a “no strike” clause which requires that all disputes be settled through negotiations. Careful to abide by those conditions, picketing workers have been off-duty employees. As a result, normal operations have not been much disturbed.

Last Thursday, the courts handed down an injunction against further picketing of the Atlantis resort by union members.

Still, the reality is that hotel workers at the Atlantis resort have reportedly been without a labor agreement for some five years, an inordinately long time. Anguish from the non-resolution of their matter is understandable.

Weary at the length of time without the conclusion of a new contract and aware of speculation that owners have placed the Atlantis property on the market for sale, employees have grown increasingly apprehensive.

Their apprehension intensified as speculation suggests that among potential purchasers of the resort is Phil Ruffin, the former owner of the Cable Beach Crystal Palace Resort, not an unknown quantity to workers in the hotel sector.

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