Prime Minister Freundel Stuart has agreed in principle to a meeting of the Social Partnership, as pressure mounts on his administration to roll back some of the austerity measures announced in the recent Budget.
However, he is yet to set an official date for the talks which come amid rising tensions between his Government, unions and the private sector over the measures.
President of the Barbados Private Sector Association (BPSA) Charles Herbert told Barbados TODAY Tuesday night that confirmation of the planned meeting was received late Monday.
However, he made it clear that the talks were in response to a request made by the private sector, and not the island’s trade union leaders, who last week issued an ultimatum to the Prime Minister to accede to their demands for tax relief within 48 hours or else.
“It [the meeting] is something specific to the private sector, not the unions,” Herbert said, explaining that a meeting of the Social Partnership had been previously scheduled for August 18, even before the unions’ ultimatum had expired last Thursday, and the subsequent protest action to press their case for either a fifty per cent roll back of the National Social Responsibility Levy, which was increased from two to ten per cent on July 1, or for Government to grant this island’s workers relief in the form of a coping subsidy.
“[As I said] that was before the [industrial] action,” Herbert stressed, further explaining that the private sector had been in communication with the Prime Minister long before then.
“We received a response from him [on Monday] and in it, he agreed in principle for a meeting with the Social Partnership, but he has not set a date,” the BPSA spokesman told Barbados TODAY, adding he was prepared to do all he could to get the three sides talking again.
“I certainly will do all that I can to encourage an early meeting because this coming period of Kadooment and CARIFESTA [the Caribbean Festival of Arts] is absolutely critical.
“These are two bright sparks [for] the island’s revenue. After that there is nothing until Christmas. These are important to the private sector and we want them to come off,” the BPSA head said.
He suggested that level heads, sitting together under the umbrella of the Social Partnership, should be able to come up with measures that could be supported by the wider community.
“We all recognize that there are difficulties and we all recognize that there is going to be pain. I think that there has just not been buy-in on the budgetary proposals, which are beginning to take effect,” Herbert told Barbados TODAY after phase one of a foreign exchange levy took effect on Monday.
The measure is one in a series of onerous measures announced by Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler in his May 30 Budget, aimed at erasing the island’s $537 million deficit and achieving a balanced budget.
However, the Budget has been met by a major public outcry from the private sector and the island’s four major trade unions — namely the Barbados Workers’ Union, the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union, The National Union of Public Workers and the Barbados Union of Teachers — which have been anxious to return to the negotiating table with Government.
In the absence of such talks and a seeming determination by Government to ignore the wishes of the workers’ representatives, the unions have ordered their members to embark on a public sector go-slow and work-to-rule which has so far not achieved its desired effect.
In the meantime, President of the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry Eddy Abed has welcomed news that the Prime Minister has agreed to meet in principle with members of the Social Partnership, saying there was a general understanding by all parties of the time sensitive nature of the discussions.
“I think that all parties want to be clear and sure when they come to dialogue of what they are asking for. The Prime Minister has the mandate to govern this country and I can only assume that he has taken the position that he is gathering facts and getting the necessary information required before he meets the private sector as head of the Social Partnership,” Abed said.
Amid the ongoing protest by the unions, he also made it clear that the unions had no axe to grind with the private sector.
“This is a matter purely with Government . . . . We just happen to be collateral damage and that is all it is,” he told Barbados TODAY, while reporting that to date there had been little if any private sector fallout from the current protest action, which involves Customs officers and other workers at the Bridgetown Port.
The unions are yet to respond to the latest development.
However, earlier Tuesday afternoon, NUPW executives met with top officials of the umbrella Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations (CTUSAB) for talks described by NUPW President Akanni McDowall as cordial.
This followed a complaint lodged by the union over statements made by CTUSAB trustee Hartley Reid to the effect that the country’s largest public sector union was “always a problem in CTUSAB” and that the NUPW had defaulted for up to two years on its subscriptions.
However, in a release issued by CTUSAB, General Secretary Dennis De Peiza made it clear that the opinions expressed by Reid at a lunchtime lecture given by the ruling Democratic Labour Party last Friday were “not those of the Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados”.
“In setting the record straight, the [CTUSAB] acknowledges that at the time . . .. . Mr Reid was acting as a private citizen, and not as an appointed representative of CTUSAB,” De Peiza said in the clear-the-air statement.