By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A trade union leader has voiced fears that the increasing use of contract workers by Bahamian employers threatens to further “erode” an already-shrinking middle class.
Bernard Evans, the National Congress of Trade Unions (NCTU) president, told Tribune Business that worker rights and protections are in danger of being undermined by the growing trend of companies seeking to cut costs by slashing their full-time workforce and outsourcing key functions.
He pointed to the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC), whose line staff union he used to head, as one such example given how its technicians had been transformed from full-time staff into “independent contractors” via a separation packages taken in 2015.
Arguing that such exercises are designed to reduce labour costs, as “independent contractors” are often not entitled to the same sickness, vacation and other benefits enjoyed by full-time employees, Mr Evans added that if entities in which the Government has an ownership interest followed such practices it was only a matter of time before the private sector followed suit.
“If you see the government agencies doing it, then it makes it that much more easier for private enterprises and the private sector to follow suit,” the NCTU president said, arguing that such practices threatened to undermine a range of worker protections and benefits.
“It’s really happening. It’s going to be really scary in the next four years as the economy changes, with the WTO and all these barriers and protections getting weaker. It’s becoming scarier and scarier when you see them continually being eroded. That will spread, and it has spread, to tell you the truth. We don’t have union representation in some of our hotels.”
Critics of contract work have often attacked it as causing job insecurity and resulting in low wages for workers. In the UK, media organisations have branded the increased use of outsourcing and growth of so-called “independent contractors” as the “gig economy”.
Numerous disputes are before UK labour tribunals and courts as to whether the likes of drivers and delivery workers are “independent contractors”, as their employers claim, or full-time staff entitled to a wider range of benefits and protections.
Mr Evans, meanwhile, admitted that Bahamian trade unions had “not done a good job” in encouraging young Bahamians to join a trade union or educating them on why it was important.
He argued that unions had been responsible for helping to create the Bahamian middle class, and added: “The middle class is continuing to erode with these type of practices. The contract workers are not unionised.
“Unions have stood in the gap and been able to negotiate contracts legacy workers currently enjoy at BTC, Bahamas Power & Light and Water & Sewerage that are 40-60 percent above GDP per capita at $50,000 to $60,000.
“Once you take them out of the equation, you’re eroding the middle class and putting them out of work,” Mr Evans continued. “Many of them are over 50, and would have to go into the labour market and will definitely not find that wage outside BTC, BPL and Water & Sewerage.
“I’m very concerned the middle class is continuing to shrink, and there is this constant attack on organised labour and their representatives. This is the only avenue that can ensure we get a part of the wealth that’s generated. I know the unions get a black eye, but if people knew what unions are really responsible for.... creating a middle class not only in The Bahamas, but the world.”
Many in the private sector would likely challenge that view. However, Mr Evans said BTC was still seeking to replace “legacy” staff workers with cheaper, younger, non-unionised contract labour, which was why it had kept voluntary separation packages (VSEPs) “on the table”.
He added that the unions were pushing to increase the package being offered to account for inflation and the introduction of VAT, but BTC in a statement issued yesterday reiterated its previously-stated position that there were no plans for forced lay-offs.
“The company again emphatically denies any plans to involuntarily separate from any of its employees, so any claims to the contrary are baseless and without foundation,” BTC said.
“As a progressive organization in an intensely competitive environment, BTC’s operating model will continue to evolve in order to provide our customers with a differentiating customer experience as cost efficiently as possible. This means aligning our people, processes and procedures with our ultimate goal of providing the best and most reliable connectivity at competitive prices to our customers throughout The Bahamas.”
Referring to recent improvements in paternity and maternity leave for staff, BTC added that it was now finalising a new industrial agreement with its management union after reaching a similar deal with line staff representatives.