Barbadian workers will have to wait until August 11 to hear whether they will be granted any relief from the controversial National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL).
Thursday, Chairman of the Barbados Private Sector Association (BPSA) Charles Herbert confirmed that he had received written confirmation from the Office of the Prime Minister of the date for the tripartite meeting, which was previously set for August 18.
However, following this week’s massive protest led by the BPSA and the country’s four major trade unions in a bid to get the Government to hold immediate dialogue with them on the vexed issue of the NSRL, Herbert said the Prime Minister had now agreed to move up the planned meeting of the Social Partnership by one week.
“I am assuming that [this] is the Prime Minister’s concession for dialogue,” said Herbert, whose relationship with Prime Minister Freundel Stuart has been noticeably strained over this week’s demonstration, which attracted over 20,000 people.
In fact, the Prime Minister has gone as far as to indicate in Parliament this week that the upcoming talks would be nationally televised so that “Barbadians can hear what the Government is about, what the Social Partners are about, both the labour movement and the private sector”.
However, Herbert told Barbados TODAY that he had not been officially informed that this particular event would be nationally televised.
In any case, he said he only had one objection to having such a meeting take place in the full public glare.
“I believe that if the right discussion happens in that meeting, it would be good for it to be televised. [However], I think if televising it makes it an opportunity for political grandstanding, then that would be a shame [if] it is televised,” he told Barbados TODAY Thursday afternoon.
“I don’t expect that we are coming to a meeting to be attacked for having a march or to defend why we had a march. Our intention is to come to a meeting to talk about the country’s fiscal strategy,” he said.
However, the two sides remain at odds over their accounts of the circumstances leading up to Monday’s protest, which attracted support from Barbadians of all walks of life, including leading members of the business community.
Just ahead of the march, Stuart had publicly accused Herbert of threatening him with “social unrest” if he failed to grant the requested dialogue — a charge which the BPSA head flatly denied.
With the Prime Minister also at odds with the trade unions over whether an agreement had been made on a review of public sector salaries by September, Herbert acknowledged Thursday that communication had broken down between the sides.
In fact, the BPSA head said he had not been in direct communication with the Prime Minister on the August 11 talks.
In the meantime, meetings of the various sub-committees of the Social Partnership that were scheduled for Friday have been cancelled, with Herbert explaining that he was also notified of that development Thursday by Government.
However, he said he was looking forward to returning to the negotiating table with both Government and the unions for “rational” discussions.
“I think the 11th allows for emotions to die down, so that when we do meet we have rational discussion and not emotional discussion.
“I think that’s good. I have not discussed this [the new date] with the unions, but I am hoping that they too are happy with the timing, because you know I suppose what you are essentially saying to the unions is that you are asking them to suspend whatever actions they have until they are satisfied that the dialogue is taking place.
However, with August 11 still two weeks away, he acknowledged that “it is quite a long time to ask the unions to do that.
“It will be very interesting what their response is. That is very, very important,” Herbert added.
He stressed that “it is one thing for me [as head of the private sector association] to say that I am willing to wait, but there are more people in this than just me, and it is very important that the unions are also satisfied with the timing and setting and the assurance of what this dialogue is to be about because just calling a meeting hasn’t really sent us a clear message that the Prime Minister has accepted the need for a different kind of dialogue than what we’ve had in the past”, Herbert said.
A week ago, the BPSA joined with the island’s four major trade unions – the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union, the Barbados Union of Teachers, the Barbados Workers’ Union and the National Union of Public Workers — in announcing plans for a march to press their concerns over the NSRL, which was increased from two to ten per cent on
“I think we sent to him [the Prime Minister] a very clear message that the kind of dialogue, which we had in the past, is not what we are talking about and it is not what we are asking for,” Herbert said, stressing that the private sector was clear in its mind what it wanted to discuss.
“We are ready. We know exactly what we want to say and I think that the key thing to appreciate is that the kind of dialogue on a strategy that we are expecting is not going to happen in one meeting.
“The country is faced with a series of very complex decisions which need the wide support of the population and in fact we think that the meeting is going to be about how that dialogue takes place and how that series of decisions get discussed and disseminated to the population and enable the right feedback from the population.
“Our hope is for dialogue about dialogue, rather than the dialogue itself,” he made it clear.
In response to an earlier suggestion by the Prime Minister that his Government would neither be blackmailed nor dictated to, the BPSA head said: “I want to be really clear; we understand that the Constitution gives the Cabinet the authority to make the final decision.
“We fully respect the Constitution and we respect the role of Government. We are simply saying that we are looking for a process, which will give Cabinet more options, and options, which have the wide support of the population,” he explained.
While acknowledging that the Social Partnership was not a law-making body, Herbert also said: “I think we have to be very careful in explaining that we understand that . . . [because] it would seem as if the Government feels that we are challenging the Constitution and challenging their authority and that is not the case.”