In the first sign of a positive response to a protest demanding tax changes the Barbados government has brought forward by one week a previously planned meeting with trades unions and the private sector, but protesters remain cautious.
Trades unions had just over a week ago joined forces with leaders of the private sector in calling out some 20,000 workers in a march through Bridgetown demanding a meeting with government to discuss either a reduction or repeal of an import tax.
The sweeping tax, National Social Responsibility Levy, which had been jacked up from two to 10 percent as of July 1 holds the potential to spike the cost of living as Barbados imports more than 70 percent of its goods and inputs for services.
Along with a demand for a repeal or reduction of the NSRL unions and the private sector called for an almost immediate meeting with the Prime Minister Freundel Stuart government to discuss some sort of ‘coping mechanism’ to save workers from the impact of inflation if the tax was not removed or reduced.
Before and after the mass march, government had steadfastly refused to meet the two groups, but in an indication that the administration might be buckling under pressure it has announced that a meeting previously scheduled for Aug. 18, will be held on Aug. 11.
The meeting had originally been preset as one of a series of regular gatherings at which the three sides normally discuss social, production and economic matters, and government’s announcement that it changed the date by a week earlier has been seen as the administration’s grudging admission of a need to soften its hard stance.
But despite Stuart’s apparent concession — at least to early talks — unions and the private sector have not been welcoming the announcement with open arms because neither the prime minister nor anyone in his government has indicated that the meeting’s agenda will focus on NSRL concerns.
“We still haven’t gotten a response to a request to an urgent meeting with a different structure,” said Mary Redman, president of one of the four powerful protesting trade unions, Barbados Secondary Teachers Union.
A daily newspaper, Barbados TODAY quoted her saying, “we are unclear whether the meeting will satisfy our requests since beyond saying that there will be a meeting, an agenda and structure have not been agreed to, and the trade union movement asked for a specific type of structure for the meeting we requested.”
Akanni McDowall, president of another powerhouse protesting labor body, National Union of Public Workers, told the Nation newspaper, that despite the re-arranged meeting, “nothing is off the table… we are looking at all our available options.”
And despite sounding hopeful, President of the Barbados Private Sector Association, Charles Herbert, adopted a cautionary tone.
Herbert said he is heartened but wants to see the agenda and be assured that it won’t be just business as usual.
“There is some encouragement that it has been brought forward by a week, but I think it is important for us who are asking for this meeting to be given some sort of assurance that this is in response to what we are asking, that the meeting is going to address the concerns we have for dialogue.
“If this meeting is business as usual then it will not satisfy what we are asking for.”