While Barbados moves closer to fully re-opening the country after a crippling COVID-19 public health shutdown, another threat of a different kind looms.
Deputy General Secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) Dwaine Paul has put the country on notice that industrial action is on the cards against construction company Preconco and other unnamed firms he is accusing of unilaterally cutting employees’ wages.
Paul told Barbados TODAY the BWU and the workers have had enough of the “uncaring” treatment being meted out to members across the island.
“We have reached a point…this is a case for industrial action. I can’t say what day it is, but definitely it is on the cards for industrial action,” the deputy union leader warned.
Paul charged that Preconco went ahead and cut the workers’ wages in the middle of discussions on the issue.
“We said that we were discussing the process and while we were discussing, the management had already gone ahead and cut the workers’ money. The company is of the view that they told us that they sent out a letter saying they were going to cut it, and they cut it…with or without agreement,” the BWU senior official stated.
Paul said industrial action had not been taken up to this point because the union wanted to ensure it gave ample vent in public to the treatment meted out to workers, while at the same time providing employers with opportunities to resolve the dispute.
“After six weeks of trying to get this matter resolved when we have been able as a country to implement other policies and change so much other legislation, why is it that labour must not now go on industrial action?” the BWU spokesman asked.“When we do take industrial action nobody will be able to say that the workers did not try. But we have a system that continues to fail labour. Why is it that every time something goes wrong in this country that in law, that it is a worker’s right that you have to go and picket? Why do you have to go on strike and withdraw labour and demonstrate because their salaries were cut when they didn’t give permission,” Paul added.
“In this case, I am strongly believing in my recommendations to council that it can’t only be Preconco. We would have to look at an action that would see labour in general having to support these guys,” the BWU Deputy General Secretary told Barbados TODAY.
“You had a COVID shutdown, so you may have to have a workers’ shutdown,” he warned.
He said owners of construction companies in Barbados were treating their employees unfairly on the back of wages’ cuts.
He suggested that Preconco and its affiliate companies are likely to bid for the hundreds of houses which Government recently advertised seeking bids.
However, Paul contends that with the workers’ pay cut, the labour cost of such companies would be artificially reduced to the benefit of the firms and to the disadvantage of the employees.
“I am certain that either Preconco or one of its affiliates is going to bid on those houses. But you know what? Their labour cost is artificially reduced because they are not paying these guys their wages, but then they are going to compete. Who is doing right by the workers? These unfair things in this construction industry must stop,” the deputy union leader declared.
Paul told Barbados TODAY the BWU raised this issue in a previous dispute with C.O. Williams Construction “where people in construction are not paying in NIS [contributions] and not providing health and safety equipment.
“When you have to get boots, most companies either provide the boots or give you a subsidy towards the boots. Preconco takes it out your salary every week if you have to get safety boots. They take back the money for the cost of the boots out of the workers’ money…and the supervisors get theirs free,” he stated.
Regarding the cutting of workers’ pay, Paul referenced a statement made in late April by acting Chief Labour Officer Claudette Hope-Greenidge who said such actions should involve a discussion with employees and an agreement between the parties.
He also cited a similar declaration recently by the employers’ representative body – the Barbados Employers’ Confederation (BEC) while expressing his anger at what he said was a lack of prosecution of corporate leaders who break the labour laws.
Some construction workers of Preconco who did not want to be identified, have told Barbados TODAY that the lower-paid employees have suffered a five per cent wages cut, while the supervisors’ are now taking home ten per cent less.
They say they are frustrated and want action taken to restore their money and even have any pay-cut back-dated to early May when it was first slashed.
One employee said 95 per cent of the 105 Preconco workers who were based in the company yard and another 40 outside have been affected by the pay cut.
“Basically, nearly all the guys frustrated because they just come and give you a brief meeting of what they would do and basically the same week, the money would have started coming out without we agreeing to it,” the worker stated.
“So basically, them ain’t give you no time…if you got a loan or if you got other things to deal wid, them ain’t give you no time to do nothing; and they say after three months they will review it and get back to us and that they don’t know if we will get back the money and what’s not. Yet still, they are pressuring the worker to give them 100 per cent,” the Preconco worker told Barbados TODAY.
For the BWU’s Dwaine Paul, the system has failed the workers “miserably” to such an extent that since the two parties met with the Labour Department on May 6 to try to resolve the pay cut dispute, the delay in securing another discussion is of grave concern.
“They cut the men money that went to the meeting too,” a worker interjected.
In response, Operations Manager of Preconco Limited Joshua Read this evening stoutly defended the company’s decision to cut the workers’ pay.
“The action taken by Preconco in reducing the salaries and wages is neither unlawful nor illegal regardless of whether the employees signed the letter,” Read told Barbados TODAY.
He said, however, that letters were issued in the interest of good relations and to ensure all employees understood the action being taken and the reasons for them.
“The pay cut will be reviewed before the end of July. This has been confirmed to each employee and the BWU in writing and verbally. The pay cut is a response to financial uncertainty due to COVID and there is no guarantee when revenues will be sufficient to support the company,” the Operations Manager contended.
“The pay cuts have been made across the entire group and range from five per cent to 25 per cent. Every single employee has been affected. The workers in question have received a five per cent pay cut,” he added.
“The only options available are the pay cut or lay off. We have requested numerous times that the BWU confirm which employees prefer to be laid off in order that we can take such action, which is a direct response to the BWU’s confirmation that some employees would prefer to be laid off rather than have their wages reduced,” Read stated.
He told Barbados TODAY that the company had agreed to a follow up meeting with the BWU and the Labour Office once the union confirms which employees prefer to be laid off.
The Operations Manager also pointed out that at the first meeting, the BWU indicated that the company should have given employees this option and confirm how many of the employees are currently members of the BWU.
“The BWU has failed to show how the action of cutting the wages due to current financial challenges, which would otherwise result in the closure of the company, is either unlawful or illegal and therefore have failed to substantiate their claims against Preconco,” Read argued.
“The BWU, in failing to respond to our letter to them some two weeks prior to the pay cuts advising them of the action we would need to take to keep the company open, has acted in bad faith in seeking to subsequently escalate the matter,” concluded the Operations Manager.