By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government was yesterday accused of returning Bahamian workers to “pre-1958 General Strike” conditions, after the Attorney General directed the courts to “discontinue” criminal proceedings against Sandals Royal Bahamian and its top executives.
Obie Ferguson, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) president, told Tribune Business that the entire trade union movement was “very, very, very shocked” by Allyson Maynard-Gibson’s ‘nolle prosequi’ (no prosecution) directive to the magistrate’s court.
He accused the Government of betraying and deceiving the Bahamas Hotel, Maintenance and Allied Workers Union (BHMAWU), and all workers, by not being “up front” about its actions and intentions.
Mr Ferguson pointed out that while the TUC’s BHMAWU affiliate, and other trade unions, have been engaged in talks with the Government for more than a month in a bid to resolve the Sandals situation and other matters, the ‘nolle prosequi’ was signed and dated August 15, 2016.
The TUC president said that date effectively ‘added insult to injury’ for Bahamian workers, as it was the same day on which Sandals Royal Bahamian terminated its 592 staff to facilitate a three-four month renovation programme.
Mr Ferguson said neither Prime Minister Perry Christie, nor Mrs Maynard-Gibson, had disclosed the ‘no prosecution’ directive’s existence despite meeting several times with the unions over the past five-six weeks.
He added that the directive was only brought to light during court proceedings on Monday, with himself only receiving a copy yesterday.
Mrs Maynard-Gibson could not be contacted for comment, but Mr Ferguson hinted that the unions were preparing a “united” response, and made a thinly-veiled threat that the Christie administration would likely pay for its actions in the upcoming general election.
The TUC president said the unions would likely announce their next move within the next 48 hours, once the joint committee made up of members from both his umbrella body and the National Congress of Trade Unions (NCTU) had met.
“We are shocked. Needless to say we are very shocked. We didn’t anticipate this happening,” Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business of the Attorney General’s directive.
He accused the Christie administration of being less than frank in its meetings with the trade unions post-Sandals terminations, and suggested that the ‘no prosecution’ move proved the Government was firmly on the side of the all-inclusive resort chain.
“Based on the meetings we had [with the Government], we felt we would have been told,” Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business.
“If the document was signed on the 15th, and 600 workers were terminated on the 15th, at the time we requested a meeting, and the information was not disclosed to us, it makes it very difficult to conclude that the Government disclosed all it knew.”
Mr Ferguson added that it was “abundantly clear” that the Government had sided with Sandals and senior management at Royal Bahamian.
“And not only take their side; it crippled the union,” he charged. “What action can the union take now? It’s been nolled.
“We are very, very, very shocked as to the behaviour of the Government in this particular situation. They were not up front.”
The Attorney General’s directive to the court “authorises” and requires it to enter into its records that the proceedings against Sandals and two senior executives “be discontinued”.
This halts the criminal action launched against the resort, its general manager, Gary Williams, and financial controller, Fritzroy Walker, by five officers of the BHMAWU.
The quintet, Donnell Ferguson; Dwayne Fraser; Rhonda Huyler; Latoya Archer; Tyrone Morris; and Santino Higgs, had alleged that Sandals Royal Bahamian was in breach of the Industrial Relations Act by failing/refusing to “treat or enter into negotiations” with the BHMAWU.
They had also claimed that the resort, and Messrs Williams and Walker, had violated the Industrial Tribunal Relations Act by intimidating and terminating employees. The resort, and its executives, had vigorously denied all allegations.
Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business that the ‘discontinuation’ directive would have “far-reaching consequences” for all Bahamian trade unions, not just the BHMAWU.
He implied that it effectively deprived trade unions, and left them weaponless, when it came to forcing reluctant employers to the negotiating table to talk with recognised bargaining agents - especially in the absence of an industrial agreement.
“The average industrial agreement takes three to five years to complete. It overruns the time you have to do it [before the previous agreement expires],” Mr Ferguson complained.
“If the Government cannot cause employers to come to the Labour Board, sit down and conciliate labour disputes and reach resolution, what other means are available to trade unions to reach an amicable agreement with the employer?
“Nothing, other than an industrial agreement. The most important thing to a worker is a completed recognised agreement and increased wages. If a union is unable to do that, members paying dues is a worthless exercise.”
Mr Ferguson also accused the Government of ‘double standards in electing to direct the ‘discontinuation’ of the criminal case against the resort and its top executives, but not the separate prosecution of the union’s executives, with that case due back before the courts on October 24.
“It’s a difficult period; a very difficult period for workers in this country,” he said. “The decision to nolle this matter puts the workers back to pre-1958. One should at least expect to have your day in court. The effect of this nolle is to prevent the Bahamian workers for going to court.”
Mr Ferguson said “something will be done” in response to the Government’s action, once the united labour movement had met to discuss the issue.
“Let me say this,” he told Tribune Business. “We will be calling on all the civic organisations in this country, all the trade unions in this country, the churches and all the political organisations that have an interest in the workers to participate in whatever action the labour movement deems appropriate to deal with this in a manner that is fair, balanced and in the interests of our country.
“We have a solemn responsibility to protect and look after the interests of Bahamian workers. We have to look after the health and welfare of this country, and not do anything to disadvantage it, but at the same time we must protect those we took an oath to protect, the Bahamian workers”.
Describing the Government’s decision, for which no reasons have been given, as “very upsetting” for the union movement, Mr Ferguson suggested the Christie administration will feel the impact at the ballot box.
“People vote their interests. Workers will vote their interests. It’s a two-way street,” he warned.