Almost two weeks into a jacked up import tax that threatens to spike the cost of living, trade unions have put the Barbados government under a 48-hour warning to retract the levy or face unspecified action.
Following through on its announced plan in the June budget, government on July 01 increased its National Social Responsibility Levy applied on all imports from two percent to 10 percent causing residents to brace for all-round price increases because over 70 percent of all goods and services are brought into this island from abroad.
But instead of waiting for the increased price shock to hit workers as stores restock and face the new levy, the top four trade unions in Barbados on Tuesday led a march to the Bridgetown Parliament Buildings where they delivered a two-day ultimatum to government demanding that the levy be repealed or at least softened.
That ultimatum gives government until Thursday to respond or face whatever action the unions are prepared to take.
Unions are keeping details on exactly what that action will be close to their chests for now, but General Secretary of Barbados Workers Union (BWU), the island’s largest workers representative body, Toni Moore said people must be prepared for the long haul.
“We unionists understand that if we are going to ‘up de ting’ [step up action], today, tomorrow, five days from now, or a month, until we get what we want, that we are prepared for the sacrifice, because what awaits us is more than we have today,” she said to the crowd after the march.
She advised the workers that if they decide on a full strike it would be “a shutdown without pay, without a red cent”.
“You understand that what is awaiting you down the road is more than what you have now?”
Those workers who turned up for the march defied all expectations by their numbers as this was intended to be only a symbolic protest and union leaders had called out only shop stewards who should have amounted to little over 100. But in an ominous sign that dissatisfaction with the 400 percent increase in the levy is high, some 600 workers turned out for the event according to police estimates.
Along with BWU were the National Union of Public Workers, the Barbados Teachers Union, and the Barbados Secondary Teachers Union.
Prime Minister Freundel Stuart added fuel to the simmering anger of workers by refusing to meet union leaders when they turned up at Parliament gates to deliver their letter of ultimatum.
Union leaders felt snubbed when the island’s political leader sent a message to them by a policeman indicating that he will see only one of the four union leaders, each of who heads organizations that can single-handedly shut down the country.
Opposition Leader Mia Mottley displayed better political acumen by not only meeting the leaders in the compound of Parliament but also inviting them and their team into her boardroom for a meeting.
In a belated reaction after Mottley’s move, Stuart then sent message that he had a change of heart and was willing to meet all the representatives, but the rebuffed union leaders declared that invitation too late and delivered their ultimatum to the receptionist at Parliament.
“The prime minister should have been able to see all of us. I find it very disrespectful for him to send a message to us through a police officer, saying that he will only see one of us, “NUPW President, Akanni McDowall, said, and asked, “when will this disrespect end? What do we have to do to end this disrespect?”
He said to the workers, “I want you here today to go back to your members and your colleagues and tell them what we experienced here today. You have to make sure that they are on-board. So that when we decide to take real industrial action, they are on-board.”
Eyes of the entire country are now watching Prime Minister Stuart with unease to see whether he will display some shrewdness in a response to the ultimatum unlike what he did at Parliament Tuesday, or if there will be more politically clumsy action to take the situation to a boiling point.