By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
The Minnis Cabinet will meet this Saturday with all the public sector unions in a bid to address the concerns that have sparked growing industrial unrest, the minister of labour said yesterday.
Dion Foulkes, pictured, downplayed the strained labour relations environment, highlighted by yesterday’s Bahamas Public Service Union (BPSU) protest march and Wednesday’s junior doctors strike, arguing that the Department of Labour dealt with these and similar matters on “an almost daily basis”.
“In the Department of Labour, we deal with matters like this almost on a daily basis,” he told Tribune Business. “Invariably, when you have a lot of unions you are bound to have disputes from time to time.
“The most important thing is for both sides to be engaged and respectful. On a daily basis the conciliators, the director of labour and myself, we have a lot of discussions with both employers and trade unions that never come to the public’s attention, which we tend to revolve. The main thing is to have both parties talking and to try to come to a middle position.”
Turning to the weekend’s summit, Mr Foulkes told Tribune Business: “We have a meeting planned for Saturday at 10am at the Paul Farquharson Centre at the police headquarters. We have invited all of the public sector unions to participate.
“That includes the Bahamas Public Services Union (BPSU), the nurses union, the doctors union, the Consultant Physicians Staff Association, the Bahamas Educators and Managerial Union, Customs & Immigration, the Teachers Union. I have spoken to both umbrella union presidents; both Mr Ferguson and Mr Evans, and they have accepted the invitation. The entire Cabinet will be there, the prime minister and deputy prime minister.”
Mr Foulkes added: “We would like to have an open discussion with them, and give them an opportunity to talk to the government directly on issues. I don’t want to say more than that but I am very excited to have this opportunity to have seven public sector unions speak directly to government.”
His comments came after more than 400 junior doctors went on strike on Wednesday over the government’s alleged failure to resolve long-standing disputes.
The Bahamas Doctors Union’s president, Dr Melisande Bassett, said the decision to make good on a strike certificate obtained last year was prompted by the Public Hospitals Authority’s alleged failure to negotiate in good faith over holiday pay, coupled with the issuance of one-year contracts despite assurances from Dr Duane Sands, minister of health, that this practice would stop.
Despite yesterday’s bad weather, the BPSU led several hundred public service workers in a march downtown to protest the government’s unwillingness to immediately give its members a $1,200 lump sum payment.
The union, which has been locked in negotiations with the government over a new industrial agreement, is demanding the one-time lump sum payment for each of its 20,000 members to assist with back-to-school expenses - a move that the Ministry of Finance estimates will cost around $20m.
Union representatives recently met officials of the Ministry of Finance, including deputy prime minister, K Peter Turnquest, where they were told that the government wanted to ease the burden on its cash flow by splitting the payments into two lump sums of $600. One would be paid this month, and the latter in December.
Kimsley Ferguson, the BPSU’s president, said yesterday: “We need a response to the concerns of these people. Economically, these people are paid beneath survival and we need their heads to come up above water so that they can breathe.
“With the burden of value added tax and the cost of living increases, these people are very challenged, and so I’m grateful that they would stand behind us as we make every effort to represent them and to address the concerns that have the immediate effect on their lives.”
He added: “We would have had a discussion with the prime minister on receiving some funding, which is part of our industrial agreement; the lump sum payment. If the agreement was signed we would have received it in 2018.
“However, the discussion was with the view to get some of the money to assist our members with getting their children ready for back-to-school. The prime minister made a commitment for some $1,200. However, I found myself in another negotiation with him making some offer of two $600 lump sum payments, which in our view was not going to be sufficient for the membership to prepare themselves for back-to-school. We weren’t able to come to an agreement; hence the members of the public service are here demonstrating in the rain.”