The plight of our workers

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The ‘flow control’ action by the workers at the V.C. Bird Airport this past weekend has convinced us that the way that management (including the government) conducts business is fundamentally unfair, and workers are getting the messy end of the stick. But here are some of the precursors to the weekend’s V.C. Bird demonstration of discontent.

Consider the desperate pleas of the Burma Quarry workers for monies owed them. And who can ignore the ongoing sporadic non-payment to workers at the National Housing Development and Urban Renewal Company? They are not happy campers; have not been for a long time. In fact, we searched our archives and found a DAILY OBSERVER article from exactly two years ago (Friday, December 22, 2017) under the headline, WORK HALTS AT GOVERNMENT HOUSING SITE with one expert steelworker complaining “Big working man with wife, children and responsibilities taking home $350 and $600 per week in Antigua, and we are skilled workers. Three years we on the job, and we already produced enough; we did over sixty houses, and we just need what they promised us. We have been promised better wages, and up to now we can’t get it.”

The extant struggle for decent wages, promised increases, on-time pay, better working conditions and so on and so forth is par for the course. It is existential, and a number of government and statutory bodies are a seething bed of disgruntled workers with low and late wages. And the unrest is a weekly occurrence here in Antigua and Barbuda. With astonishing regularity, we are hearing of another outbreak of labour turmoil in some other sector of our economy. For example, the Port Workers took action recently. Last week, it was the Transport Board workers. This past weekend, it was the aforementioned workers at the V.C. Bird International Airport. A few months back, the Fiennes workers, as well as the Clarevue workers were forced to take action to propel the government into doing right by them and the patients. The protest by the Antigua Barbuda Broadcasting Service (ABS) workers also comes to mind. Not to mention that it was this time last year that Postal Workers were agitating for a much-needed fix-up of the General Post Office. Two weeks ago, it was struggling self-employed beach vendors at Jolly Harbour who were being given the shaft. And so it goes . . . another day in paradise . . . but certainly no paradise for long-suffering workers.

The sad thing is that, so much is trumpeted about us being the third-fastest growing economy in 2019, and the good performance of our CIP product, and all the money that these statutory bodies have been raking in, but the workers – the people who make it happen; the people with families to feed and bills to pay; those who have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet (relationships suffer) are just not feeling it.

Interestingly, a sad refrain in these outbreaks of industrial action is that promises were made by management, and the promises were seldom, or never kept. Consider the case of the airport workers  against the Antigua and Barbuda Airport Authority (ABAA) this past weekend. It is a shocking exemplar of the way that workers are disrespected and taken for granted. Here’s what Chester Hughes, the Antigua and Barbuda Workers Union (ABWU) Acting General Secretary had to say about the impasse: “The employees are frustrated. . . because the second year of the contract is now ending. And we are now going into the third year come January, and we have not come to a single conclusion on even one single group of employees and their wages. You’re talking about two years of retroactive payments, if we were to come to an agreement. It is quite clear that the company wants to frustrate the workers and the process, and everybody wants to hide behind the notion that it’s our international airport so you can’t take action. . . Whether or not they’re essential workers, it does not negate their rights under the laws of Antigua and Barbuda. Nevertheless, the employees were on the job, and they did what is called ‘flow control.’”  Their hands were forced; they had to do something. And they did, by way of a slow-down. The sentiment of the Transport Board workers was eerily similar – that there was management foot-dragging on promises made. Not to mention the dastardly treatment reportedly being meted out to the workers of Caribbean Helicopters Limited (CHL) as chronicled in today’s DAILY OBSERVER.

Which beggars the question on many minds: Why is it that this administration and the statutory bodies only act when faced with resistance and protest from the workers? Why can’t the pledges made at the bargaining table between workers and management be lived-up to, without workers having to ‘down their tools,’ so to speak? Why does everything on the labour-relations front have to be so reactionary? Nothing can be proactive? Will the administration and the management of these statutory bodies only honour their parts of the good-faith agreements when pushed and shoved by irate workers? So if the workers do not take action, will the government merely allow agreements to languish for two, three years until the fed-up workers take a stand? Huh? We are calling on the government, the malingering statutory bodies, and unconscionable private employers to do right by the employees. They are worthy of a decent living wage. They are worthy of optimal working conditions.Here’s trusting that this New Year will see recalcitrant employers step up in a big way to honour their promises. After all, workers are our most valuable asset!

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