Unions demand debt relief for workers

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By Shermain Bique-Charles

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Union bosses are predicting a spike in delinquent loans as the coronavirus hits residents in the pocket – and are urging the government to intervene early. 

The Antigua and Barbuda Workers Union (ABWU) wants Finance Minister Gaston Browne to approach all local financial institutions to seek relief in the form of loan payment deferral and other standing order arrangements.

Additionally, the ABWU is requesting that government moves to relax payments on all utilities. 

General Secretary of the ABWU David Massiah told Observer that his members have had several meetings on the implications of the virus on the workforce and it is important the government takes these actions, in the interest of working people and disadvantaged members of society.

“We are particularly concerned with the dislocating and negative impact the coronavirus (COVID-19) is beginning to have and will continue to have into the foreseeable future, on workers in particular and our employers and government in general,” he said.

The Union is also requesting that landlords defer or reduce their tenants’ rental payments, particularly those facing reduced working hours or layoffs. 

“In this time of uncertainty and in established cases of necessity, employers would be advised to schedule workers on a shortened work week. Others could be allowed to proceed on vacation leave with pay which is due or outstanding,” he said.

Massiah said the Union is willing to work in tandem with the government and employers “in this time of grave uncertainty and difficulty”. 

His request comes as major layoffs are reported in hotels and many staff’s working hours have been cut significantly.

Massiah met with tourism stakeholders this week and outlined some of his concerns.

He requested that employers should pay laid off workers a percentage of their weekly/monthly salary for an agreed period.

“Thereafter, should the layoff continue, no more than 50 per cent of the employee’s/employer’s Thrift Fund contributions standing in each employee’s account, be released from the Fund to the laid off employees on terms to be agreed upon to assist in alleviating hardship,” he added.

Further, Massiah said the hoteliers should ensure that the contributions of both employer and employee are paid into the medical insurance fund at State Insurance Corporation on behalf of laid off employees to avoid a possible lapse of the insurance. 

“In situations where it becomes unavoidable or absolutely necessary to lay off an employee with immediate effect, the Union would be amenable to relaxing the Notice Pay provisions,” he added.

He said the hoteliers are expected to put a collective plan in place to respond to the Union’s request.

Meantime, President of the Antigua and Barbuda Free Trade Union Samuel James said the government must devise strategies to ensure workers continue to meet their obligations.

James is also suggesting the setting up of an unemployment fund to cushion the blow during times like these.

“We cannot depend on social security because they too need the handouts…I think the government need to come to the public and discuss how they intend to deal with this,” he said.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne has already told the nation to brace for difficult times ahead as he predicts food shortages and a struggle to pay public servants.

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