BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Tuesday July 25, 2017 – With the support of more than 20,000 Barbadians, the island’s four main trade unions and the Barbados Private Sector Association (BPSA) yesterday took to the streets to march against the austerity measures imposed by the Freundel Stuart administration.
Barbadians from all corners of the island and workers from every sector – including banking and finance, construction, retail and services – hit the main thoroughfares of the capital Bridgetown with placards demanding a roll back of the controversial increase in the National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL) and an urgent return to dialogue.
Scores who spoke to reporters in the heated sun shared their frustration with the government’s handling of the country’s fiscal affairs and its deteriorating relationship with the island’s trade union and private sector, which have been pressing for talks to find an alternative to the hike in the NSRL from two to ten per cent, which will significantly increase the cost of living.
Business owner Stacey Choat, director of Saltech Inc, told the Barbados Today online newspaper that she was concerned about the government’s economic policies, warning that the measures would impose further burden on citizens.
She appealed to the Government to listen to the country’s stakeholders.
“Once you are living in this country, you are going to be affected by the state of the economy so . . . the three groups are supposed to be working together to find a solution to raise Barbados out of this fiscal deficit. But from what I gather the government is not listening . . . . They are basically saying, ‘this is it, this is how it is’. What they are saying and how they are saying it, is not working for us,” she stressed.
Private sector officials, who closed their offices to join the march, said their main aim was to work with the government and other stakeholders to chart the path to a return to growth.
Outgoing president of the Barbados International Business Association (BIBA) Gregory McConnie lamented that the situation facing the country was pressing and he feared it could worsen if Stuart did not meet urgently with the social partners in search of a solution.
“We feel that there is a very urgent situation. We have a very poor credit rating, a very serious foreign exchange reserves issue that we need to get addressed very urgently. We think that we need to come up with a solution that has the benefit of the views of all the social partners and we need that to happen urgently, because we are extremely concerned about foreign currency reserves,” he said.
A day ahead of the march, Prime Minister Stuart had chastised the trade unions and the BPSA, charging that the march was intended to bring down the Government.
The suggestion was however quickly rubbished by chief executive officer of BPSA Anne Reid.
“This is not about any political agenda. This is about an issue that has been clearly identified over the past few weeks,” she said.
At the same time, BPSA chairman Charles Herbert flatly rejected suggestions that the business community had threatened social unrest if the Prime Minister did not hold talks with the union ahead of the August 18 scheduled meeting of the Social Partnership.
“This is just so far from the truth. Today speaks for itself. There is no unrest, there is nothing illegal, this is a peaceful standing together,” he said.
Herbert stressed that the massive turnout was a clear indication that Barbadians were demanding dialogue.
Trade union leaders also soundly dismissed the charges that the action was politically motivated.
President of the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU) Mary Redman said while the unions wanted Stuart to meet to discuss the vexing NSRL, there was no interest in bringing down the administration.
“This is about making them understand that they have failed miserably at going it alone and that they have to again include the social partners to help bring this country out of the economic morass into which we have been led,” Redman told protesters at the end of yesterday’s march.
Her sentiments were shared by Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) general secretary Toni Moore, who spoke of Stuart’s reference to the biblical story of Esau and Jacob as he urged Barbadians not to be misled by the unions and the BPSA.
“When I hear scriptures being used conveniently, I know that is generally a tactic of those who are floundering to appeal to the senses of people who have a spiritual upbringing,” Moore said.
Drawing reference to the functioning of the Social Partnership, the BWU leader lamented that while it had been touted internationally, it has now been reduced to an institution that is “under functioning and underperforming”.