By Orville Williams
Following the threat of industrial from workers at the port, the CEO of the Antigua and Barbuda Port Authority Darwin Telemaque, has explained that there exists an understanding that bonus payments may not be made in times of financial crisis.
Telemaque’s comments came on the heels of escalating tension among the port workers this week, over news that their annual bonuses would not be paid due to the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The workers’ bargaining agent – the Antigua Barbuda Workers Union (ABWU) – had issued a deadline to the port’s management for a 3.5% bonus to be paid, with the threat of industrial action otherwise.
With the December holiday period being one of the busiest times for the port, there were fears that a strike could have a detrimental impact. There was some reported impact on Monday, with workers said to be on a go-slow, which affected customers attempting to process incoming shipments.
Perhaps sensing the potential trouble, the government intervened through the Attorney General – who issued an order preventing the strike – as well as the Prime Minister – who raised the possibilities of furloughing and the resumption of voluntary redundancy.
Following those developments, the workers were then advised by the ABWU to abandon the plans for a strike.
Addressing the issue this week, Telemaque used the financial crisis of 2007-2008 as an example to explain that during times of turmoil, the understanding is that bonuses could not be expected as normal.
“When you date back to the period of 2007, the port had one of its best years, followed by the global crash [and] the economy went bad. 2008 [and] 2009 were the last two years that bonuses were paid, there were no bonuses paid in 2010 [through to] 2015.
“To contextualize that reality, under the same construct of the collective agreement, the understanding is that in times of economic hardship – which was brought on by the global economic downturn – the port and the union work together with the understanding that it wasn’t possible to pay bonuses at this period.
“So, if there is an understanding, at least there is some context to establish that during economic hardships, the bonus becomes something that we can discuss and understand the inability of the port to actually make the payouts,” Telemaque explained.
The port CEO also dismissed any suggestions that they were attempting to evade their responsibility to the workers, noting that in the past, there have always been discussions about bonuses that end in consensus.
“If you follow the port closely, you’d realize that in 2014 our numbers became better. In 2015 it grew more and in 2016, the port management reached out to say to the staff, ‘we’re going to pay your bonus’. It wasn’t the unions that initiated that bonus in 2016, when it was the first time [since 2009] we made that payment.
“The management sat down and we said ‘we’ve got our heads above water, let’s make an overture to the staff’. That was done in 2016 [and] subsequent to that, we’ve always looked forward to making that bonus payment to the staff.
“What we are saying in 2020 – and we sat with both unions and had these discussions with them – we’ve explained our financials, we explained the difficult situation [and] we’ve shown where the numbers come from,” he added.
Telemaque also issued a call to the Deputy General Secretary of the ABWU, that they are willing to sit down and go over the financials, in order to satisfy any additional worries. This, after he disclosed the port’s net profit for the year 2019 was around 12 percent, which amounts to approximately three or four million dollars.