[Documents menu] Documents menu

Industrial unrest intensifies

The Daily Herald, 24 April 2000

KINGSTOWN, St Vincent - Industrial unrest has hit vital sectors of the economy in St. Vincent and the Grenadines since last weekend as workers step up demands for the resignation of the Sir James Mitchell administration in the wake of passage of a bill last Wednesday granting increased pension and gratuity benefits to parliamentarians in the face of massive public protest outside.

Since Friday, nurses and prison officers have been calling in sick forcing doctors at the main Kingstown General Hospital to send home patients who do not require critical care and causing the relocation of condemned prisoners from the building housing the female prison to the main male penitentiary.

Monday, air traffic controllers at the main ET Joshua Airport failed to show up for work forcing general manager Joel Jack to man flights into and out of the airport.

He told CANA Monday that so far, no flights have been adversely affected but could not say at this point what measures would have to be put in place.

Meteorological officers also did not show up for work Monday as workers move towards a planned closure of the country from Tuesday.

Activities coordinated by unions

The current spate of activities was initially co-ordinated by the two public sector trade unions - the St Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers Union and the Public Service Union representing civil servants.

It has since been broadened to include the nurses association, the medical association, church and youth groups and a range of grass roots organisations now going by the name the Organisation in Defense of Democracy.

As these groups finalised mobilisation efforts for Tuesday?s shut down of the country, Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell was holding talks Saturday with representatives of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, the Employers Federation and the two trade unions which represent their employees.

At this meeting, Sir james reportedly promised not to send the Pension and Gratuities act for the signature of Governor-General Sir Charles Antrobus so that discussions could take place on the issue, a representative from one of the unions involved said on radio Sunday.

This followed an appeal for dialogue Saturday from Dr Sehon Goodridge, Anglican Bishop of the Windward Islands.

But Fitz Jones, president of the umbrella National Labour Congress said the Prime Minister has missed the opportunity for dialogue. "Our position is that the time for dialogue in relation to the bill has long passed and any dialogue now would be to see how the objectives of our organisation can be achieved in the shortest possible time with minimal disruption."

The grouping has begun a series of television and radio programmes and distribution of fact sheets to maintain momentum ahead of Tuesday?s shut down of the country.

The increases to parliamentarians arose from the recommendations of a report by a committee set up by government in 1998 to review pensions, gratuities and other benefits and working conditions for members of the House of Assembly headed by Eastern Central Bank governor Dwight Venner. "When the Venner committee was established and met here in St Vincent and invited all Vincentians publicly to have dialogue with it some responded, some did not, there was plenty of opportunity for dialogue in the creation of the Venner report," Sir James stated.

The Prime Minister pointed out that certain promises made, to teachers for example in respect of establishing a new category of teachers in 1997, were being processed for implementation soon. He also spoke that a promised reclassification exercise has already begun.

Sir James issues veiled warning

"As Minister of National Security, let me say this, I wish to assure this nation that I will continue to shoulder my responsibilities in this regard as I have always endeavoured to do, I therefore hope that good sense and reason will prevail."

Union leaders said they view the Prime Minister?s statements as a threat but would not be intimidated nor deterred from their intended course of action.

The minibus association, which represents the privately-run public sector transport services said it is in support of the call of the Organisation in Defense of Democracy and would not be transporting workers nor students Tuesday.

A member of the executive also stated that following a Sunday morning meeting, the grouping also decided to be part of a slow protest march and drive into Kingstown organised by ODD for Wednesday and would be transporting protesters into the capital for a second protest and mass rally Thursday when the House of Assembly is due to resume meeting after last Wednesday?s suspension.

Opposition promises to repeal bill

The opposition Unity Labour Party-ULP- has already promised that if it gets into office as a result of fresh general elections arising from the current workers? action, it would not pay parliamentarians the increased gratuities and would repeal the pension and gratuities bill.

Constitutional reform has also been promised so that the pensions of parliamentarians would no longer be protected.

Party leader, Dr Ralph Gonsalves also stated in a television broadcast at the weekend, that any workers who have been fired, suspended or otherwise victimised as a result of their current activity, would be restored.

He said that already nurses are being threatened with dismissal, civil servants have been warned of victimisation and certain others have been promised inducements not to take part in the escalating protest.

Dr Gonsalves said party supporters have been placed on alert to support fully the activities of ODD in order to achieve its objective of forcing the government from office and he has appealed to the business community for their support.

Gonsalves says issue not only political, but economic

"This matter is not simply a political issue, it is an economic question of the highest order that the country cannot proceed to develop economically with a government which is so insensitive to the concerns of the general public, which is so contemptuous of the people, which has broken its bond of trust with the people, which has broken and shattered the social contract between the people and the government."

Dr Gonsalves said as this is also a moral question involving inequity and injustice, the churches should become involved and support the workers in their demand. "I want at the same time to ask that those overseas governments which have missions here or where missions are accredited to St Vincent and the Grenadines - to indicate to the government that they cannot come to the assistance of the NDP (New Democratic Party) at this moment of crisis, this is a political crisis for Vincentians alone to deal with.

Last Wednesday and Thursday teachers stayed away from the classroom and they are expected to do so again next week.