In a scene reminiscent of 1991 when Leroy Trotman (now Sir Roy) led thousands of private and public sector employees through the streets of Bridgetown to protest against the austerity measures implemented by the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) administration led by Erskine Sandiford (now Sir Lloyd), over 20,000 frustrated Barbadians Monday morning took to the streets of the capital in a march against Prime Minister Freundel Stuart’s DLP administration’s austerity measures.
Chanting “Solidarity for the Social Partnership”, Barbadians from every sector, including banking and finance, construction, retail and the services sector, turned out with cleverly composed placards demanding an ease from the burdensome National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL) and other tax measures that took effect from July 1, a month after they were announced by Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler in the Financial Statement and Budgetary Proposals.
While National Union of Public Workers President Akanni McDowall, Barbados Workers’ Union General Secretary Toni Moore, Barbados Union of Teachers President Pedro Shepherd and Barbados Private Sector Association Chairman Charles Herbert led the march from Queen’s Park on foot, President of the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union Mary Redman joined the protest in a wheelchair, having injured her left ankle during a march earlier this month.
Carrying a placard screaming “Up De Ting”, Redman could be heard chanting, “Enough is Enough”.
Members of the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) headed by Mia Mottley, cast aside their usual red for white attire as they too joined the march.
Political scientists such as Peter Wickham and Tennyson Joseph were also present, observing this outright rejection of Government’s fiscal policies.
After Prime Minister Freundel Stuart Sunday fired a veiled warning to the unions that their members were the ones likely to lose out, and compared the “new found fellowship” between the BPSA and the unions to a cat and a mouse enjoying “fellowship in the same space”, as well as a “lamb and a lion lying down together” and a “mongoose and a chicken together”, the protesters had little appetite for surrender.
Standing in solidarity with the unions, 29-year-old Daniel Small told Barbados TODAY he was appalled by Stuart’s comments, stating the Prime Minister had insulted the intelligence of Barbadians by suggesting those demonstrating had a political agenda.
“They [the DLP] made it seem political, they made it seem racial. It is disgusting and it is belittling how intelligent Barbadians are. Anyone that agrees with this [Stuart’s comments] cannot see beyond their nose, they cannot see the big picture,” Small said.
Although he was not optimistic about the results of the march after the Prime Minister stated he had no plans to review the levy, Small was hoping for some change.
“I don’t think things are going to change overnight but I think it is important that we as a community let the elected politicians know that there is unhappiness and discontent with a lot of the policies that they put in place and it is time for change,” he stated.
Stacey Choat, director of Saltech Inc, also had no plans to let sleeping dogs lie. Accompanied by her employees, Choat told Barbados TODAY she was seriously worried about the direction in which the country was heading in light of the austerity measures.
“I do fear that in a few years the country, the economy, is going to get so bad that there will be no recovering from it,” she said.
The most vexing issue for the protesters was the NSRL, introduced last September at a rate of two per cent of the customs value of domestically manufactured goods and on goods imported into Barbados, but raised to ten per cent effective July 1.
Choat said she had no political axe to grind, but stood firmly behind the BPSA, which has demanded talks with Government about its fiscal policies.
She charged that the Stuart-led administration was blackballing the Social Partnership, which came out of the 1991 protest.
“Once you are living in this country, you are going to be affected by the state of the economy so . . . the three groups are supposed to be working together to find a solution to raise Barbados out of this fiscal deficit. But from what I gather the Government is not listening . . . . They are basically saying, ‘this is it, this is how it is’. What they are saying and how they are saying it, is not working for us,” stressed Choat while insisting all the trade unions and the private sector wanted was an open line of communication on the country’s monetary issues.
“The way I am seeing it, what has been posed by the Government, it is not going to work. It is going to blow up in everyone’s face and when that happens then we’ll all really be crying out, every last one of us.”
Cherry-Anne Thorpe, an employee of Brewsters Enterprises Inc, who joined the march with her mother, Diana, an employee of Automotive Arts, took issue with Stuart’s rhetoric and his approach to addressing the public.
“The Prime Minister, he says nothing much but when he speaks it is always like a downgrade to everybody,” she said, adding that the Prime Minister was being disrespectful to the population by failing to address citizens on important issues, choosing instead to comment at DLP events.
Among the demonstrators was Emmanuel Searles, a Barbadian living in New York, who travelled to Queen’s Park to register his opposition to the tax rises.
The 56-year-old who wishes to return to Barbados when he retires said he was worried about the country’s future.
“I was hoping that when I come here to retire that it would be much better for me but it doesn’t seem that is going to be that way at all,” Searles said.
Remaining hopeful about the outcome of the march, he expressed his wish that Stuart would take note of the country’s plight and effect the necessary changes.
“I left here 31 years ago and all I have been seeing is Barbados going downhill under the leadership of Freundel Stuart,” he complained.
While the marchers remained optimistic that Government would take note of the numbers in attendance and act accordingly, those who watched from the sidelines were less certain.
One Bridgetown shopper who declined to be identified told Barbados TODAY she believed nothing would change.
In fact, she suggested the private sector should have put more pressure on Government by closing all businesses except the hospital.
“I think they should have shut down every place and just left the hospital open . . .let the people know you are serious. All these stores in town should have shut down, let people know that, ‘yeah we are serious about this thing,’” she said.
“At the end of the day, Freundel just doesn’t care and he is showing that he doesn’t care what you do, so they [the private sector] should have shut down.”
Observer Charles Howard, while applauding the unions and the private sector for the turnout, felt Stuart’s comments had backfired.
“Last night’s speech that was given by the Prime Minister of Barbados, I don’t know if he is crazy or what, but if 5,000 people was supposed to come out today, that speech alone made another 5,000 come out,” Howard said.
“This march was needed ever since. One should have happened a long time ago. It is time that people start speaking out and doing things because these taxes are very hard on everybody,” he added.
However, not everyone was supportive of Monday’s action. Among the critics was Errol Griffith, who was of the view that the trade unions and the private sector were being unreasonable.
“I am not against the march but I am against the people not working because the country can’t afford this type of march. The taxes are vital because like the Prime Minister said, it is to help with the increase of wages. When necessary the public servants will get a raise of pay,” Griffith said.
Twenty-six years ago Sheldene Dyall protested against the Sandiford administration when she was forced to take an eight per cent pay cut.
The memory is still fresh in her mind, she said, and she was back on the street again Monday to send a strong message to Government that she has had enough of austerity.
“I am addressing this problem from 1991 when Mr Sandiford was in power. I remember that he had regraded all of the top civil servants and then he came back and made the workers at the bottom pay [the eight per cent cut],” Dyall told Barbados TODAY.
“They have restored their ten per cent and carry up taxation. Now we must pay over 30 per cent in taxes. We have not seen a raise of pay in over nine years,” she added.
“How does this Government expect us to live?”