By NICO SCAVELLA
THE Supreme Court yesterday issued an injunction on behalf of the government ordering members of the Bahamas Nurses Union, the Bahamas Customs and Immigration Allied Workers Union and the Bahamas Educators Managerial Union to abandon their national strike and return to work “forthwith” or risk being in contempt of court.
Those workers took part in a strike in New Providence, Grand Bahama and some Family Islands yesterday, organised by the Trade Union Congress (TUC).
Although Director of Labour Robert Farquharson would not confirm if workers will face penalties, a well-placed source in the government told The Tribune that those employees who participated in the strike are likely to face pay cuts and the possibility of termination.
At a press conference yesterday at the Attorney General’s Office, Mr Farquharson, reading a court order from Supreme Court Justice Ian Winder, said members of the respective unions were hereby restrained from “continuing to participate in any strike action” until the matter is heard by the Supreme Court.
“If they don’t do that they’ll be in breach of a court order,” Mr Farquharson said.
He said failure to do so could result in a $150 fine, three months in jail or a combination of both.
He said, however, that Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson is the only person that can decide whether any prosecution will take place.
Mr Farquharson’s comments came after TUC President Obie Ferguson initiated the strike in frustration over various outstanding disputes with the government and private sector.
“The government is of the belief that their actions were illegal, it is in violation of the provisions of the Industrial Relations Act, and it has put the services of the Department of Immigration, the Customs Department, the Ministry of Education, the Public Hospitals Authority and the Ministry of Public Health from providing the vital and essential services that are required for the growth and development of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas,” Mr Farquharson said.
“The respective departments have been asked to provide the government with the names of all of the officers who have not reported to work, or who reported to work and left their place of work. The government will use its options under the respective collective bargaining agreements to make a determination if any disciplinary action will take place as a result of the actions taken by these persons.
“The government is also considering the fact that by participating in these strike actions, these employees have committed a criminal offence, and that offence is liable by fine and/or imprisonment. A decision will be taken on the way forward with regards to that, however the government is extremely happy that the Supreme Court has ordered the workers back to work, and we’re still open to discussions to resolve those matters in an amicable fashion.”
On Tuesday night, Mr Ferguson told The Tribune workers under the TUC umbrella would hold a strike the next day, action that had been promised since July 18. He said the TUC had been negotiating “in good faith” with the government and the private sector since 2011 and “in some cases beyond that,” but to no avail. He said the industrial action would last “as long as it takes” to resolve outstanding disputes with the Christie administration and the private sector.
The government recently warned the TUC and its respective unions not to engage in strike action, which it said would be illegal because the grievances put forth by its unions had been turned over to the Industrial Tribunal. In a statement issued yesterday, the Ministry of Labour said the TUC’s actions violated several provisions of the Industrial Relations Act and Chapter 321 of the Statute Laws of the Bahamas.
The statement was referring to an incident in September 7, 2007, when, according to Labour Minister Shane Gibson, Mr Ferguson took then Minister of Labour Dion Foulkes to court for refusing to supervise a strike poll. Supreme Court Justice Peter Maynard had ruled that once a request is made to supervise a strike poll, even though the matter is referred to the Tribunal, the strike poll must still be supervised.
He said, however, that once a matter has been referred to the Tribunal employees cannot strike on the disputes that have been filed.
The statement also said that the Bahamas Industrial Manufacturers and Allied Workers Union; the Bahamas Nurses Union; the Commonwealth Union of Hotel Services and Allied Workers; the Bahamas Hotel Managerial Association; the Bahamas Customs Immigration Allied Workers Union and the Bahamas Educators Managerial Union all have matters before the Industrial Tribunal.
Mr Ferguson on Tuesday dismissed the concerns of the strike being illegal and said Mr Gibson did not have “the statutory authority” to refer a criminal offence to a civil tribunal for adjudication.
Mr Gibson said yesterday that he was “disheartened” that nurses at the Princess Margaret Hospital and some Family Island clinics would “actually walk off the job” in support of an “illegal strike.”
“I’m advised that you had persons who actually walked off the job, 5 o’clock this morning, from the Princess Margaret Hospital in the middle of treating patients,” he said. “Something must be wrong with that. You have two clinics in the Family Islands where the clinics were shut down as a result of nurses not showing up. Hopefully nothing happens that would cause the death of any individuals in the Family Islands as a result of nurses withdrawing their services. Healthcare is something that you cannot play around with. For those two clinics to be shut down, we’re going to have some serious repercussions from that.”
Mr Gibson said that despite Mr Ferguson’s alleged infractions, Ministry of Labour officials were willing to “sit down at the table” and resolve the issues.
“Hopefully cool heads will prevail,” the minister said. “We are still open to union executives sitting down with us and going through each one of those matters individually to see how we can resolve them.”
The TUC represents 26 unions and has a collective membership of about 15,000 workers.
The Tribune understands that a handful of employees of the Sandals Royal Bahamian Resort also took part in the strike. Nurses, Customs and Immigration officers and several employees of the Grand Lucayan Resort took part in the strike on Grand Bahama. It is unclear how long the industrial action will last.