By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A trade union leader yesterday labelled the government’s current payout offer to Grand Lucayan managers as “discriminatory” because it is less favourable than the terms obtained by line staff.
Obie Ferguson, the Bahamas Hotel Managerial Association’s (BHMA) president and chief negotiator, told Tribune Business that the government’s approach “just doesn’t add up” because his 91 members who wish to leave the resort are being offered less than the more junior workers they supervised.
While the last voluntary separation package (VSEP) offered to the BHMA was worth around $3.1m, representing the Employment Act’s termination terms plus $500,000 on top, Mr Ferguson argued that the 160 line staff who have already accepted their payouts obtained deals in excess of what that Act provides.
Arguing that “no government would discriminate” against a particular group of workers, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) leader said departed Grand Lucayan line staff had obtained payouts based on up to 17 years’ service - far in excess of the Employment Act’s 12-year limit that the government is seeking to impose on the managers.
Mr Ferguson also said he was “amazed” and “caught by surprise” by comments from Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, who told the media on Tuesday that he had not received any communication from Mr Ferguson or BHMA representatives on the Grand Lucayan matter for seven to eight days.
Questioning “what strategy they’re pulling”, Mr D’Aguilar said he was “alarmed” by the lack of contact amid his efforts to resolve the long-running payout controversy, and added “the ball is firmly in” the BHMA’s court.
But Mr Ferguson, who said he had communicated with Mr D’Aguilar on both Tuesday and yesterday, argued that the reverse was true. He told this newspaper that the BHMA had gone silent while it awaited the minister’s promise to produce “a modified version” of the VSEP payout proposal via a spreadsheet.
This, he added, was supposed to guide and inform discussions when the two sides next negotiated with a meeting set for this Friday at 2pm.
Mr Ferguson confirmed that the Government’s signing of a Letter of Intent (LOI) with the ITM Group/Royal Caribbean joint venture, triggering exclusive negotiations for the Grand Lucayan’s sale, had “certainly intensified” the urgency to complete voluntary payout talks.
While employees remaining with the hotel would see their existing wage and benefit terms assumed by the new owners, Michael Scott, the Grand Lucayan’s chairman, has warned Mr Ferguson and his 91 members wishing to depart that failure to agree a deal with the Government before a sale closing would result in them obtaining a worse deal.
The new owners would only be obligated to offer Employment Act terms and conditions to BHMA members, which would be less than the $3.1m offer currently on the table now.
Mr Ferguson, though, warned yesterday that the Government’s present offer effectively amounts to discrimination given the better terms already accepted by the junior line staff who were supervised by his members.
“The Government has just completed a VSEP payout for the line workers; the maids, the bus boys, the house men and them,” he told Tribune Business. “In their total wage package they have gotten 15, 16, 17 months’ pay in terms of what they gave them; the grants and under the Employment Act.
“When you look at that, they got more than they’re offering the managers. No government would discriminate against its own workers. That just doesn’t add up. We are willing, and the minister attested to this, to find resolution that will be beneficial to the Government side and the supervisory and managerial side.
“But you just cannot pay a line worker more than, or give them a longer period of notice, than you give to a manager.” Mr Ferguson said the current position was akin to paying his law firm’s secretary more than himself, even though he was the leading attorney, in the event a voluntary payout was offered.
“No government I know of will discriminate, at least not knowingly, and say they’re going to pay a housekeeper 12 months’ pay or line workers’ 15-17 months pay and keep the manager at 12 years,” he added. “Let’s be consistent with what we understand the system to be.”
Mr Ferguson, meanwhile, said Mr D’Aguilar’s remarks were “not productive” and blamed the minister for the present negotiating silence because he had yet to deliver on the promised “modified version” of the payout to BHMA members.
“I find that amazing,” he told Tribune Business of the minister’s concern over the union’s seeming quiet. “He and I had a very cordial meeting, and I was caught by surprise. I don’t think Mr D’Aguilar’s utterances are productive as he has not completed what he promised to give us as the basis for when we meet so that talks are constructive.
“I don’t know why he’s saying the BHMA has gone quiet. We were waiting on him to supply us with what he promised. When we last met he said he was going to do a modified version of the VSEP payout and send it to us. We were waiting for him to send it and still have not seen it. The ball’s in his court.
“I don’t know how that can be interpreted as we’ve gone quiet. We were waiting to properly advise the members. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Mr Ferguson said he had exchanged What’s App messages with Mr D’Aguilar on Tuesday, when the minister expressed his concerns, and yesterday in a bid to move the process forward. He said they had agreed to meet at 2pm this Friday, with the minister promising to send the “modified payout” to the BHMA chief yesterday afternoon. It had not arrived when the union chief spoke to Tribune Business.