By Leonard Gildarie
I have great friends in the political divide. Friends who are not afraid to speak out even about the shortcomings of their party or the Coalition.
I read the recent statements of Minister within the Ministry of Finance, Jaipaul Sharma, about even giving up his seat for the Opposition, in a bid for inclusive governance.
It is the kind of opening gambit, to use a chess term, that I like. Sharma is a brave man, I whispered to myself. He is testing the waters. And it may be too hot for him.
But sometimes, even though we stand alone in our thinking, and we believe that it is the right thing, we should make our voices heard, and loudly at that.
I get called out very often. At work, sometimes I vow to stay silent and then the natural competitive spirit would rise up and make me blurt out something, surprising even myself, taking a colleague to task. It gets me into trouble, but I have come to realize that it is who I am.
So it is with deep interest that we watch what unfolded in the past few weeks with the teachers and their union. The union had tabled proposals for a 40 percent increase, among other things.
The Government has said that it can’t pay that. The unions claim that the Government did not table a counter-proposal.
The stalemate led to nine working days of strike – four in the opening week of the new school year. Unheard of. The turnout was significant countrywide.
Still a number of teachers, substitutes ones, were conducting classes. At Queen’s College, my old school, I received complaints that they were in full operation, defying the calls of the union.
On Thursday, in seeming short order, it was agreed that no headway could be made in the negotiations, and that the matter is heading towards arbitration. It was agreed that teachers would resume their work, and await the decision that would be forthcoming from arbitration.
I saw head teachers and teachers alike holding one head and even hands, in solidarity.
I was affected by the strike at home. My two little ones are in public schools, something I insist on.
At the primary school, there were no classes as the teachers stayed away. Diamond Secondary had classes, albeit with the few teachers that turned up.
My little girl stayed home all week as there was nothing to do.
The Ministry of Education was reporting that schools were open. The reality is that teachers largely supported the union’s calls for solidarity.
Minister of State, Joseph Harmon, was quoted as urging the teachers back to work as nothing could have been achieved in the streets – rather, cool heads must prevail. It was good advice.
At the end of day, the point by the teachers and their union was made.
I also received calls. So if the teachers receive an increase, can police and the nurses agitate for the same thing? Do they have a legitimate expectation then too?
The situation we encountered has been going back to a decade and the blame must fall squarely on the shoulders of our government, as the policy makers.
I would venture, at the real risk of reprisal, that we never really paid attention to the importance of labour.
We speak, at the sides of our mouth on Labour Day.
We can recall all too clearly on consecutive Labour Days, how the two major union umbrella bodies went their separate ways – one to National Park and the other to Critchlow Labour College – they were divided along political lines.
We can recall the sacking of 50-plus workers from the Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc., a Russian-owned company in Region 10, because the workers dared protest for better working conditions. That matter has still not been resolved, almost a decade later.
We can talk about the situation under the previous government where increases or bonuses were announced arbitrarily, at year-end without attention to labour obligations with unions. In fact, unions were sidelined.
I would love to hear anyone justify those dark days of non-engagement. The likes of Lincoln Lewis and Patrick Yarde are likely to be the first to come forward about their experiences.
How many cases, that had little to do with the administration, were swept under the carpet because a labour official was compromised? I am sure here that quite a few former employees would be willing to come forward.
Indeed, we had quite a few visits to Kaieteur News over the years complaining about labour officials.
We can examine also, a recent court case about the legality of the last Trade Union Recognition and Certification Board (TURCB).
The teachers’ actions have to be a wake-up call to this administration and any other that may come after this.
We have rules of engagement with our people.
At the courts, if a decision is not agreed with at the magistrate’s level, it can be taken Appeal Court. The last resort of course would be the Caribbean Court of Justice.
By the same argument, there are rules of engagement in labour.
The teachers have been meeting with the Education Ministry. After nothing much came, they took action. They met again and it was agreed that teachers would resume duties and the matter go to arbitration. They have to abide by the arbitration decisions.
The reality is that despite what is being said, we have struggled in the last three years, from a combination of factors.
Venezuela halted our oil-for-rice deal, taking out a huge chunk of money in our budget that could have been available for other things.
Gold has been, sort of, holding its own. Rice has improved tremendously thanks to farmers and better yields and new markets, in Cuba, Mexico and Panama.
However little else has been going on that would have left the government with a large surplus. Indeed, just to find $4B to pay sugar workers their severance, a number of ministries and state agencies were shaved.
I happen to know a few people who have little operational expense.
So we now have to find a few millions more. The problems that we have are of our own making. We have to be realistic.
Our unions have to understand what is happening at the level of the economy. On the other hand, the administration has to make it their mandate to engage and ensure we arrive at those multi-year agreements.
The awareness of the importance of labour laws and adherence to them has been brought to the fore, and we must send a message also to all employers that there are repercussions for breaching obligations.
No more should unions take bribes (yes, we heard that too) or labour officials be accused of ducking a matter.
We can either kill the messenger or embrace the fact that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. We have a chance to make this country into a first world one, one tiny step at a time.
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