By DENISE MAYCOCK and LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporters
SCORES of Social Services employees demonstrated across the country in a show of frustration yesterday, citing unfair practices, poor working conditions and unresolved workplace grievances.
The demonstrations, which began around midday, prompted the closure of offices in New Providence, Grand Bahama, Abaco, Exuma and other Family Islands.
All social workers protested on their lunch break yesterday, The Tribune was told, and the group plans to write to Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis with their demands to which they have given him said he has seven days to respond.
In widely circulated videos, protestors on the various islands could be seen holding placards which read “overworked and underpaid” while chanting “promotion overdue” and “unfair treatment”.
A similar exercise was also seen in New Providence, featuring dozens of workers demonstrating outside the department’s headquarters on Baillou Hill Road.
According to social workers, their frustrations stem from years of neglect and disrespect.
They are upset over the government’s failure to regularise workers in the unemployment work assistance programme, some of whom have remained unconfirmed for over 30 years.
Workers have also hit out at the lack of promotions in the agency, which they claim are long overdue. They furthered that officials failed to establish a medical insurance or risk allowance plan for employees among other things.
“I work as a case aide at SRC (Sandilands Rehabilitation Centre) where there is COVID all around, everywhere you turn – left, right and centre,” social worker, Natasha Todd told reporters during yesterday’s protest.
“We are at risk. I’ve been on the work programme for 16 years. I’m a single mother. Have two children, working and only getting $220 or $210 a week.”
“It’s very unfair to us and we work hard and they make demands and we’re always at work and we’re working like (permanent) people and in fact we have worked harder than the people because we carry the majority of the work.”
Shenita Collie, senior clerk at the department of Social Services, agreed that workers deserve better treatment, saying staff morale is at an all-time low.
She said: “For a long time, the Department of Social Services have been overlooked. They don’t seem to remember us unless it’s time for work. If a hurricane hit today, these same people they’re ignoring would want us to get up and go in whatever situation with no health insurance, no risk allowance… we are tired of being ignored. We want our promotions; we want a proper career path. We want a regularisation of staff.”
Public Service Union president Kimsley Ferguson was also out in support of the social workers yesterday, saying enough is enough.
He said ministry officials have not resolved workers’ concerns despite their claims to be working on the matter.
He told reporters the group plans to write Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis and will give him “seven days” to respond to their grievances.
“We’re saying to the government of The Bahamas that social workers will tolerate no more mistreatment and abuse while being required to serve the public during the course of any natural disaster that would take place in this country,” Mr Ferguson said yesterday.
“In my view and in their view, these individuals are essential workers in this country. (They) should be considered for honorarium that’s been given. They should be considered for insurance. They should be considered for hazard pay and so we’re going to stand in solidarity across the length and breadth of this country until such time as the government with their dismissive attitudes pay attention to the concerns of the workers in this country.
“Across the length and breadth of this Bahamas, Exuma, Inagua, Abaco and in Grand Bahama, in Nassau and in every family island. Social workers have taken this opportunity to make an appeal to the government of The Bahamas,” Mr Ferguson added. “The offices are closed. These people are entitled to a lunch hour and we’re using that today to make our voices heard.”
Asked what’s the next step if workers’ concerns are not addressed, the BPSU president charged: “There is going to be an industrial action. We want our money, and we want it now.”
Last month, social services employees demonstrated over a malfunctioning air-conditioning unit, refusing to serve the public until the system was repaired.
At the time, Social Services Minister Frankie Campbell told reporters staff concerns were being addressed.
Numerous attempts were made to reach Mr Campbell regarding workers’ latest concerns but were unsuccessful up to press time.
Meanwhile, social workers in Grand Bahama protested at the Department of Social Services yesterday over a number of concerns, including increased pay and non-regularisation of long-serving staff.
About 20 to 30 workers marched around the parking lot, holding placards and singing “Solidarity Forever”.
Speaking on behalf of the workers, Juleta Ingraham said they are tired of being overlooked and ignored and disrespected as civil servants.
“We are the most degraded profession in the civil service; we are the least paid,” she complained.
Mrs Ingraham stressed that social workers in Grand Bahama continued working, even during the pandemic and Hurricane Dorian.
“We never stopped working, we prepared the hurricane shelters and worked the shelters. A lot of them lost loved ones, vehicles, and their homes, but they continued working.
“We have absolutely nothing – no risk allowance, no insurance, no hazardous pay, but still yet some are unrecognised in The Bahamas.”
Mrs Ingraham noted the unemployed programmers who are support staff at the Social Services Department are still not regularised as permanent workers.
“They are the legs of SS,” she said, adding that some have been employed for 30, 20, and 12 years, earning only $210 per week, with no increase, and no benefits when they retire.
“We are simply saying we are tired of it; we have been saying it over and over and repeatedly. This is a fight we have had for some time now and it’s fallen on deaf ears.
“What bothered me the most was that the government decided to go and regularise the 1,103 individuals of the 52-week programme, but still have not touched the regularisation of workers in Social Services.
“To me, that is very wrong and very bad, and that is why we came out today. We say enough is enough.”
According to Mrs Ingraham, some social workers with a Master’s degree have not even been regularised. She also added that there are people working month-to-month that have not received their letters of appointment as yet.
“Social workers weave the fabric of society in every nation, but yet we seem to be the ones always walked on and disrespected and nothing happens,” she said.
Social worker Latoya Cartwright, who is also the northern region vice president at the Bahamas Public Services Union, said that all public service agreements are still outstanding.
“The government is refusing to come to the table, and social workers, not only in Grand Bahama, but also in the Family Islands, are working at a disadvantage to assist the community.”
Ms Cartwright also noted that the career path in Grand Bahama is outstanding.
“The list of concern is too long to mention – something must be done.”
The union official said they plan to continue to protest and demonstrate until their demands are met by the government.
“We plan to do this until they bend, they must come to the table. They must do what we elected them to do. We will not stop until we are satisfied,” she said.
Kirkland Russell, vice president of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas Trade Union Congress and vice president of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas Hotel Managerial Association, said workers are being denied basic human rights.
He said the TUC stands in full support of the social workers in Grand Bahama.
“The concerns that these workers have are not political. These are basic human rights concerns. The ILO (International Labour Organization) made it clear that workers’ rights are human rights.”
“We cannot continue to allow the government to lead the way in the casual worker phenomenon,” Mr Russell said.
“These persons (at SS) working for 10 and 15 years are not permanent and pensionable. We call on the government to make a decision concerning these workers.”
Mr Russell said that the union is concerned that other employers will follow.
“Looking at the industrial park in GB, at some companies less than 20 percent of employees are casual. This is detrimental to our economy and we say it must stop.”
Referring to tragedy in Freeport on Tuesday, he said: “The tragedy that happened yesterday where three persons died, that could have been any one of those casual workers without insurance. We must do what is necessary to assist workers at SS, whether they are essential or not.
“When disaster hits and they are called to be on the frontline, they are essential workers. When the pandemic hit, they are essential workers. But, when it is time to pay $1,400, they get nothing, and they are not essential workers. They must treat workers and the union with respect, and come to the table and negotiate a decent contract for the workers.”