By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Morton Salt workers yesterday said they presently have "no major concerns" over the company's impending sale so long as the buyer honours their industrial agreement and "treats us fairly".
Jennifer Brown, president of the Bahamas Industrial Manufacturers & Allied Workers Union (BIMAWU), which represent more than 100 of the salt harvester's line staff, told Tribune Business that changes of ownership had become "the norm" during her 35-year career there.
With herself and other workers having become used to this situation, she suggested the Bahamian subsidiary's future prospects remain strong given salt's multiple uses - something that ensured Morton Salt was treated as an "essential service" and remained open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This has been going on for 30 years," Ms Brown said of the decision by present owner, German-headquartered K + S, to seek a buyer for the Inagua plant and all Morton Salt's worldwide assets. "We are not upset about it. We just hope whoever purchases will treat the employees fairly. That's the only fear: The treatment.
"When they sell it really doesn't affect us that much. We don't have any major concerns right now. For us this is the norm. I've been with the company for 35 years, and it has been sold four times'. Some workers are hoping it will be sold because of the treatment experienced last year before we got the contract signed.
"With a new company comes changes. For the past couple of months they've [Morton Salt's Inagua management] have been trying to keep the budget low and cut back on overtime and expenses. The only concern we really have is when it's purchased. Whoever purchases it will likely keep the Morton Salt name along with their own."
With global demand for salt remaining strong, and undiminished by the pandemic, Ms Brown argued that the linchpin of Inagua's economy should be attractive for any buyer. "Salt will always sell," she told this newspaper. "They use salt for so many things.
"Even during the pandemic they needed salt to make the saline solution for hospital drips. They always need salt, which was why we were working during that pandemic."
Ms Brown spoke out after international media reports confirmed that K + S had been forced to put the global Morton Salt business, said to be valued at $2bn, up for sale to reduce soaring debt that resulted from its investment in a Canadian mine.
The German company is aiming to complete the sale, which includes the Inagua business, by year-end 2020 with the process said to have entered the second round of bidding. Reuters reported on August 20 that the field which has qualified for the second round is dominated by US private equity firms.
One contender was said to feature Meritage Group LP, the investment firm for the family of hedge fund billionaire James Simons, which has partnered with US salt producer, Kissner. Rivals were reported as including private equity firms Advent International, American Securities and Cerberus Capital Management.
Private equity or buyout firms, which typically seek to restructure corporate acquisitions as they seek returns in the 20-30 percent range, often have little love for trade unions. And any Morton Salt sale will, like deals involving CIBC FirstCaribbean and Grand Bahama Power Company, be concluded outside The Bahamas at the regional/global level.
This makes it very hard for the Bahamian government to influence the sale and its terms beyond requiring the buyer to adhere to this country's laws. Transactions involving local subsidiaries of multinationals, negotiated and sealed outside The Bahamas, are thus often presented as an effective fait accompli to regulators and approving agencies such as the Investments Board.
The buyer's plans and intentions will also be critical to the future of Inagua and its economy given that, much like San Salvador and Club Med, Morton Salt is the engine upon which the island is almost totally dependent for jobs and activity.
Obie Ferguson, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) president, head of the umbrella body to which the Morton Salt workers belong, said they were seeking more information on the sale and how it might impact the workforce.
He added that it will be critical for any buyer to honour the industrial agreement signed between the union and company last year, and to also comply with any terms and protocols imposed by the Government.
"I think they are concerned," Mr Ferguson said of Morton Salt staff. "It appears as if there's going to be a sale. The new owner will come in and take over, and be governed by the collective agreement. I don't think there should be a major problem or have to much of an impact on the workers.
"Inagua has the best salt in the region, and it's quality salt, so the materials are in place, and if the workers continue to do what has to be done to maintain the quality of the product, I think they'll be OK."