By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Labour leaders yesterday demanded that employers be held to the “same standard” over their calls for trade unions to be struck off if they are insolvent or fail to file their annual returns.
Bernard Evans, the National Congress of Trade Unions (NCTUB) president, told Tribune Business that should such measures be imposed on trade unions then employers should suffer the same fate for failing to pay taxes and National Insurance Board (NIB) contributions.
Still, striking a conciliatory tone, Mr Evans said he and the NCTUB would be seeking to meet with the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC) for a “full and frank discussion” on the latter’s concerns.
He added that the trade unions wanted to work as “equal partners” with the private sector for the good of the Bahamas and achieve “mutual understanding”, rather than have one side exploiting the other.
Mr Evans, who was responding to proposed Industrial Relations Act changes suggested by the Chamber and its chief executive, Edison Sumner, was backed by yesterday by the NCTUB’s general-secretary, Zane Lightbourne.
Mr Lightbourne, a prominent Bahamas Union of Teachers (BUT) officer, wrote that the proposals represented unwarranted interference in internal union affairs, and would further expose Bahamian workers to ill-treatment by employers.
Both men were responding after Tribune Business obtained a copy of the Chamber’s December 20, 2016, letter to Robert Farquharson, the director of labour, in which it also recommended that a mandatory obligation be placed on Bahamian trade unions to create ‘a redundancy fund’ for their members.
“Section 39 of the Industrial Relations Act be amended to make it unlawful for trade unions who fail and/or refuse to file their annual returns to continue to exist,” the Chamber suggested.
“These annual returns should be audited by a licensed member of the Bahamas Institute of Chartered Accountants (BICA). It is proposed that trade unions be fined for this failure.”
The Chamber then added: “Moreover, the Act should be amended to make provisions for trade unions who are insolvent to have their registration cancelled immediately or incur some other penalty.
Mr Evans, in reply, told Tribune Business: “I thought it was kind of strange that they’re asking for a strengthening of legislation to nullify unions where they’re non-compliant, but are they asking for the same thing with members of the business community?
“If they don’t pay NIB contributions, should they be shut down? If they don’t provide audited reports and payments for Business Licence, should they be shut down?”
The NCTUB president, who also heads the Bahamas Communications and Public Officers Union (BCPOU), said any legislative moves that would result in unions becoming “null and void” could not stand unless employers were “held to the same standard”.
“Clean up your own house as far as I’m concerned. Take the log out of your own eye before you take the trees out of mine,” Mr Evans told Tribune Business, pointing to what he described as the “overwhelming” number of instances where monies were deducted from employee salaries but never passed on to NIB.
He acknowledged, though, that “two wrongs don’t make a right”, agreeing that trade unions should file audited annual returns and comply with Bahamian law at all times.
Mr Evans said that while most trade unions were in compliance over their annual returns, there were “a few” small ones that had difficulty because of their size and out-dated accounting and payment systems.
He added that there was no need for unions to establish mandatory ‘redundancy funds’ as most already had such reserves, pointing to the BCPOU’s supplementary pension plan and medical coverage for dependents.
“I don’t think unions need to be mandated to have redundancy funds,” Mr Evans told Tribune Business. “His [Mr Sumner’s] suggestion is a noble one, but we don’t need someone telling us that; we’ve been doing it for 30 years.”
Promising to “reach out” to Mr Sumner and the Chamber, Mr Evans added: “We need to set up a meeting with the Chamber.
“We really want to sit down and have discussions on some of the issues they have.... There may be some issues they have concerns with.
“I want to have an open and frank dialogue with him and his group to find out what are the issues and come to some mutual understanding,” he continued.
“We want to be equal partners. We all want to see the country progress, and not have one entity have an advantage over the others.”
Mr Lightbourne, meanwhile, said it was “very disappointing” to see the Chamber’s call for tougher laws designed “to help get rid of unions”.
He argued that the Industrial Relations Act’s section 19 empowered individual trade unions, through their respective constitutions, to determine whether they exist or are dissolved.
And Mr Lightbourne said that union constitutions, together with the Industrial Relations Act’s section 30 (3), already mandated that their accounts be audited annually and sent to the Registrar of Trade Unions, with penalties for non-compliance.
Implying that there was no need for the Chamber’s proposal, Mr Lightbourne argued that its suggestions would only hinder the progress of amendments to the Employment Act and Industrial Relations Act that were designed to better protect Bahamian workers from “unfair terminations because of loopholes in our laws”.
“Labour’s proposal is to close these loopholes to protect workers,” he added.”The suggestion of getting rid of unions is a suggestion of leaving certain groups even more exposed to lay-offs, ill treatment and stifled compensation.
“Besides, Mr Sumner and the Chamber of Commerce have no business dabbling into the internal affairs of the unions.... [Their] suggestions can only be seen as an attack on labour.
“Why suggest that unions be subjected to a different treatment? Why is the proposed conclusion to a union’s insolvency so harsh and finite? Is this the new face of the Tripartite Council? That our supposed partners sit across the table to negotiate and formulate progressive plans, [but] behind our backs they are busy seeking ways to get rid of unions altogether?
“If there is to be any further relationship with the Chamber of Commerce there must be a commitment of mutual respect of boundaries. We shouldn’t get in the internal affairs of the Chamber, and they should have no business in ours.”