By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Trade union leaders yesterday urged the government “to part ways” with the Bahamas Telecommunications Company’s (BTC) controlling owner after its top executive “insulted” the company’s workforce.
Bernard Evans, the National Congress of Trade Unions (NCTU) president, called on the Minnis administration to “cut our losses” and reclaim 100 percent Bahamian ownership after the head of its ultimate parent company questioned the productivity and work ethic of BTC staff.
Branding BTC’s eight years under Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC) as “a total catastrophe”, Mr Evans told Tribune Business that the carrier’s status as the worst-performing entity within the Liberty Latin America (LiLAC) group was a “reflection” on its controlling shareholder rather than Bahamian workers.
Alleging that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) had ranked BTC as the “third best performer” in the Western Hemisphere prior to its 2011 privatisation, behind only carriers in the US and Canada, he said the only reason for its decline could be the “failed” management and policies of CWC and LiLAC. The latter acquired CWC after BTC’s sale.
Mr Evans, the former Bahamas Communications and Public Officers Union (BCPOU) president, reiterated his belief that CWC had “failed in every aspect” when it came to meeting their pre-privatisation promises to the former Ingraham administration about growing the company.
Suggesting that they had only succeeded in “sucking the life out of BTC” by continual cost-cutting and slashing the workforce’s size, the trade union leader added that both CWC and LiLAC had neglected to properly prepare the carrier for competition and the loss of its lucrative mobile monopoly that, at one point, accounted for 75 percent of its revenues.
Mr Evans said the government should now seize on the controversy sparked by a widely-circulated video of LiLAC’s group chief executive, Balan Nair, suggesting there was a “night and day difference” between the “attitude” of Bahamian employees and that of their Jamaican counterparts to seek an alternative partner or ownership structure for BTC.
“Maybe the time has come to part ways, cut our losses and see how we can get it back. Maybe it’s time to give us back BTC and let us run it because we were successful prior to the sale,” the NCTU president told Tribune Business.
“This has been a total catastrophe. It could not have been what the former prime minister [Hubert Ingraham] and the former chairman [Julian Francis] envisaged, not in their wildest dreams.” Mr Francis, who headed BTC’s Board at the time of privatisation, has previously spoken out about CWC’s failure to grow and improve the company subsequently.
LiLAC/CWC have never given any indication of plans to exit BTC, and replacing them would require finding another partner with the international scale and expertise to cope with a rapidly evolving communications market and increasing competition.
However, the loss of BTC’s mobile monopoly in November 2016 means that the $210m value placed on CWC’s then-51 percent stake at the time of privatisation will have shrunk appreciably, potentially placing it within range of Bahamian investor groups with the ability to raise the necessary capital and hire a management partner.
The Ingraham administration had also planned for the government to gradually exit its BTC ownership via a series of share sales that the market could bear. The flotation of an initial nine percent equity stake, worth around $40m, was mulled but then abandoned by the Christie administration which focused on regaining “majority Bahamian ownership”. Its successor has yet to make clear its intentions.
Mr Nair, meanwhile, seems to have performed the near-impossible feat of uniting The Bahamas’ two major political parties through comments in widely-circulated videos that were interpreted as disparaging Bahamian workers and making jokes at the Prime Minister’s expense. Fred Mitchell, the PLP chairman, came out in support of both Bahamian workers and the Prime Minister.
Garry Sinclair, BTC’s chief executive, yesterday attempted to calm the controversy sparked by Mr Nair’s comments last week to employees of LiLAC’s and CWC’s Jamaican subsidiary. “To be clear, no fire has been started,” he argued in a statement. “The statements were taken out of context and do not convey the full essence of the message that was delivered.”
The video clips, which have been studied by Tribune Business, cast doubt on Mr Sinclair’s assertion that the remarks were “taken out of context”. Mr Nair clearly put the Prime Minister at the centre of a joke, alleging that Dr Hubert Minnis was unable to “make eye contact” with Mr Sinclair when he called for “more Bahamians” to be placed in higher posts within BTC during their meeting last week.
After repeatedly saying “I agree” when asked by a Flow Jamaica worker whether the company’s strong performance merited more Jamaicans being placed in senior positions elsewhere in the LiLAC group, Mr Nair then responded: “It is so funny. Garry and I, and a few others, were meeting with the Prime Minister of The Bahamas on Monday”.
After pointing out Mr Sinclair, and describing him as a “crown jewel”, Mr Nair added: “BTC is run by a Jamaican. We’re sitting right across from him [Dr Minnis]. He’s like; he brought up more than once: ‘We need more Bahamians’ and he’s not trying to make eye contact with Garry.”
This brought laughter and approval from Flow Jamaica staff, with Mr Nair going on to describe them as “awesome” and their unit as the “best performing operation in all of Latin America”. He then joked: “If you go to any of our other operations like The Bahamas or somewhere else they’re not going to like you very much. That’s the only downside.
“What are they drinking in Jamaica? They can do things nobody else can do. We were just in The Bahamas on Monday and Tuesday. It’s like a night and day difference. My biggest wish is one day they would say: ‘We can be like Jamaica. We can do what they’ve done in this country....
“The people in The Bahamas are no different from the people in Jamaica. It’s all about attitude. If you feel like you can win, you will win.” Mr Nair said Mr Sinclair had been appointed as BTC’s chief executive to achieve the same kind of turnaround enjoyed in Jamaica, adding that “when he does it there this company will be on an even higher rocket ship”.
Mr Sinclair’s assertion that “BTC maintains a good working relationship with the Government of The Bahamas, and will continue to work together to drive economic growth” looked extremely optimistic last night after the Minnis administration’s blistering response to Mr Nair’s comments.
Pakesia Parker-Edgecombe, parliamentary secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office with responsibility for communications, branded the remarks as “distasteful and insulting”, and suggested the LiLAC chief had revealed “a troubling mindset and extraordinarily poor judgment”.
She blasted: “Mr Nair insulted the Prime Minister, Bahamian workers and the Bahamian people. In any context, the comments are unacceptable and extraordinarily inappropriate.” However, the LiLAC chief’s comments are not necessarily new, as Tribune Business reported on May 9 this year how he had branded BTC as the group’s “most inefficient” performer.
Still, Mrs Parker-Edgecombe’s comments indicate that the controversy has inflicted significant damage on the Government’s relationship with CWC/LiLAC. It is unclear yet what impact this will have at BTC, given that the two sides sit around the Board table as the carrier’s two major shareholders, with CWC/LiLAC enjoying both Board and management control.
While Mr Nair’s comments were likely not meant for Bahamian consumption, being intended to galvanise Jamaican employees, the growing backlash could not have erupted at a worse time for LiLAC, CWC or BTC given the continuing fragile state of labour relations at the Bahamian carrier.
Mr Sinclair has repeatedly touted improved benefits, and the completion of an industrial deal with the BCPOU. Negotiations on a new agreement with the management union are also said to be taking place, but Mr Nair’s comments now pose a potential threat to industrial harmony and BTC’s enjoyment of a smooth operating environment.
Mr Evans yesterday told Tribune Business that “the staff are not taking it too well”, with Mr Nair’s remarks “reverberating” around BTC’s JFK Drive headquarters. He added that the LiLAC chief “doesn’t understand the history”, pointing to the fact that its Jamaican unit had been forever owned by CWC while BTC had only been in its control for eight years.
With BTC and The Bahamas ranked third in the region by the ITU prior to privatisation, Mr Evans argued: “After we had the change in ownership, Board control and management, the performance of BTC is not the staff. The performance of BTC is directly a reflection of the management and policies put in place by CWC.
“It’s not due to the attitude and productivity of the workers. The fall in BTC’s performance to worst performer is primarily due to the management, policies, direction and lack of investment by CWC and LiLAC.... The only common denominator is Board and management control of BTC.
“They [CWC] have not delivered on what they said they would do. They have not lived up to their promises. They have failed in every aspect. The former prime minister, Hubert Ingraham, and ex-chairman, Julian Francis, both of them have said they are disappointed,” Mr Evans continued.
“They only want to recognise savings to satisfy their shareholders by cutting costs and staff, and benefits and wages. The statements made are sad but it is not due to the productivity of the staff. The staff continue to bend over backwards. They’ve just sucked the like out of BTC and are now saying it’s the lowest performer, but it’s a direct result of their policies and strategies.”
Mr Evans said CWC and Lilac had failed to prepare BTC for competition, and had “taken the power away from Bahamians” to make decisions when they were best suited to respond to customer needs and demand trends.
He accused them of taking “a plug and play” business model from elsewhere in the region and imposing it in The Bahamas, not realising it was ill-suited to the “different culture” in this nation.