By Elesha George
Prime Minister Gaston Browne made some stark remarks in Parliament on Tuesday, as he scolded the Antigua & Barbuda Workers Union (ABWU) for encouraging port workers to take industrial action over unpaid bonuses.
As a result of the threat to withhold their services, Browne said Cabinet would be discussing reinstating voluntary redundancy and will have to consider furloughing some of the 250 port workers.
Browne claims that the port only needs 80 of the 250 workers currently employed in order to function efficiently.
He revealed that when his government took office in 2014, it made the decision to suspend a voluntary retrenchment programme which had been in the works by the former administration.
The prime minister, who said that many of the workers were highly paid but unskilled, told parliament that “we recognized that if we were to retrench them or allow them to go on voluntary retrenchment, that many of them would not be able to command a job with a similar remuneration within the private sector or even other areas of the public sector. So, in order to protect them for themselves Mr Speaker, we literally asked the port to withdraw that voluntary separation package that we were offering them”.
Browne said the workers should recognize that they are in a position of privilege and that “there is an existing rationale to lay them off”.
“I think they’re making a mistake because if they lose their work at the port, then clearly Mr Speaker they cannot command even half the amount that they are making now”, he touted.
He said the possible redundancies could be further compounded by the elimination of jobs when the port modernization project is completed.
“We’re now investing $250 million to modernize the port; it means that there will be greater mechanization, even the ships that are brining goods to the island now, Mr Speaker, they are mechanized in such a way that it will eliminate a lot of the manual labour. So it means there will be greater redundancies and the union has a responsibility to be honest with its workers and to advise them about risks. The risk of losing their work and their vulnerability,” he explained.
The prime minister also chided unions across the island, noting that it may be time to examine the relevance of trade unions, and told Parliament that some union workers cannot separate politics from national interest.
“If they cannot provide leadership for their members and all they can do is to be disruptive then they do not have a place in the development in this country in the 21st Century, then it means they have become irrelevant, unfit for purpose,” he remarked.
“We have had a serious imbalance in the system where workers believe that they are the only ones who have rights, who have profits in the interest of certain companies, even in the private sector,” Browne added.
He made a final appeal to workers at the port on Tuesday, asking that they reconsider their choice to start industrial action. The ABWU had given the government until December 15th to pay a 3.5 percent bonus as stipulated in their collective agreements.