By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Grand Lucayan will today be placed on high alert due to expected industrial unrest over the termination of 170-plus staff, with its chairman pledging: “I’m going to nip this in the bud.”
Michael Scott QC told Tribune Business he will respond with “ruthless resolve” after being informed that union activists were planning a 21-person protest at the government-owned resort even though it currently remains closed.
Warning that any agitators will be confronted by security staff and the police, and “escorted off the property”, he warned unionists against such measures and reiterated that the Grand Lucayan and its Board had “bent over backwards” to treat terminated staff fairly by offering greater compensation than is required by the Employment Act.
However, Obie Ferguson, the Bahamas Hotel Managerial Association’s (BHMA) president, told this newspaper he “doesn’t have a clue” about any purported industrial unrest and added: “We intend to go to the Supreme Court.”
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) chief, and labour attorney, revealed that the BHMA will file as early as today for an injunction to halt the dismissal of its members and employees until Lucayan Renewal Holdings, the special purpose vehicle (SPV) that owns the resort on the Government’s behalf, complies with the requirements set out in the Employment Amendment Act 2017.
Mr Ferguson is arguing that the staff terminations, which are occurring as part of preparations for the Grand Lucayan’s sale to the ITM Group/Royal Caribbean joint venture, are non-compliant with section 26 a) of that Act. This requires employers to discuss potential redundancies of 20 persons or more with employee representatives or bargaining agents, such as trade unions, so all sides can agree the process and due severance to be paid.
The BHMA is alleging that Lucayan Renewal Holdings failed to abide by this procedure, but Mr Scott countered that it has no standing as a bargaining agent because its industrial agreement expired in 2014 and a new one was never negotiated.
As a result, he is arguing that the Employment Act section cited by Mr Ferguson as the basis for the union’s legal action does not apply, and Lucayan Renewal Holdings therefore did not have to discuss the planned terminations with the BHMA in advance.
Mr Scott also pointed to a November 13, 2019, Supreme Court “consent order” as justification for his position. That halted a previous trade dispute brought by the BHMA against Lucayan Renewal Holdings, with the Industrial Tribunal having to “refrain” from further hearing the matter on the grounds that there was no industrial agreement in place that could be enforced.
The Grand Lucayan chairman also hit out at Mr Ferguson and the BHMA for allegedly failing to provide an accounting of how monies from the resort’s emergency employee welfare fund were spent prior to the Government’s September 2018 acquisition of the property, arguing that there had been no response to the Board’s repeated requests.
Mr Ferguson, though, retorted that any problems had been caused by Lucayan Renewal Holdings’ failure to complete the necessary paperwork and nominate signatories that would have joint authority with the union over the emergency fund’s bank accounts.
The row between Messrs Scott and Ferguson indicates that relations between the Grand Lucayan Board and its middle management union have reached an all-time low. Mr Scott branded Mr Ferguson as “full of hot air”, while the trade union leader countered by accusing him of being anti-worker.
However, affirming that he will not tolerate industrial action in any form, Mr Scott said: “I’ve been alerted that the union is planning some unrest on Monday [today], sending 21 people back with nothing to do because the hotel is not open.
“I am going to have security there, the police there, Harvey Tynes QC there, and am going to nip this in the bud with ruthless resolve. I am not going to let that happen. There is no excuse for them to be there. They have no reason to be there, and will have them escorted off the property. I intend to shut that down and, if I were the union, I would not do that.”
Asserting that the 170-plus workers set to depart the Grand Lucayan over the next several weeks have been treated more than reasonably, Mr Scott said the Board had ensured they were provided with free independent legal advice to ensure they fully understood the “deed of release” they are being asked to resign in return for receiving their severance payouts.
“As many of our employees did not understand the release and indemnity prepared for retiring staff to sign, I engaged Harvey Tynes to come on premises during the severance arrangements and advise any retiring staff unclear on the meaning of the release so that they could feel secure in their execution of the documentation. This independent counsel is being retained at our expense,” Mr Scott said.
“We’ve bent over backwards to treat them [the staff] fairly. We’ve had three accountants look at the figures, and they’re satisfied they’re correct and they’ve been treated fairly. I regret very much that I have to take these steps, but the record needs to be clarified.”
However, Mr Ferguson yesterday said he was unaware of any industrial action due to take place at the Grand Lucayan today. He suggested that the 21 persons referred to by Mr Scott might simply be following the Prime Minister’s instructions for all public sector workers to return to work today given that the Government currently owns the resort.
“I don’t have a clue what he’s talking about,” he told Tribune Business of Mr Scott. “I have not authorised, nor am I knowledgeable about, any industrial action. I’m going to court. I spent my whole Sunday today drafting the writ of originating summons with a supporting affidavit, as we as the court to restrain him from carrying out the redundancies without complying with the Employment Amendment Act.
“We intend to go to court, the Supreme Court, to seek an injunction requiring him to follow and comply with Section 26 a) of the Employment Amendment Act 2017. We will have it filed as early as Monday [today], and we will seek an urgent date with the court on that particular application.
“We are satisfied that the Act provides for a specific mandated procedure that must be followed and, in this case, the chairman never says he made an attempt - and nor did the minister [Dionisio D’Aguilar] make any attempt to notify the union about the redundancies. This is a requirement by law,” Mr Ferguson continued.
“We’re going to court to seek an injunction restraining him from releasing employees without following the Act. The point is not that the company cannot make the workers redundant. Our position is that if the company decided to make workers redundant, if there is an Act of Parliament that speaks to the procedures to be followed it must be followed.
“It seems to me the court is the most appropriate place, and I’m sure the court will appreciate the urgency of the application we’re about to file and assist in ensuring the chairman follows the law. We are not above the law. Everyone must follow the law, the union and him.”
Mr Scott, though, said the Supreme Court’s November 2019 “consent order” - entered in another dispute between the Grand Lucayan and BHMA - showed the union had no standing to bring any action in relation to the Employment Amendment Act’s section 26 a).
This order came after Arthur Parris, an attorney representing the resort, alleged in a July 31, 2019, affidavit that “the union wrongly took the view that the industrial agreement continued forever” despite the initial deal with Hutchison Lucaya expiring in 2014.
He argued that the union has misinterpreted language in the agreement saying its terms remained in effect until a new one was signed, and added: “The [Industrial] Tribunal agreed that as the industrial agreement had expired and was not renewed, there was no agreement in place that could be enforced.”
Mr Ferguson, though, countered that it was Mr Scott and the Board that had “misinterpreted” the law, arguing that what counted was the BHMA’s status as bargaining agent and representative for the middle management employees - not whether a valid industrial agreement is in place.