The Minister of Justice, when he appeared on TV with the prime minister’s press secretary, was reckless in his comments about striking firefighters. He was also clearly out of touch with reality.
“There has been a shift in approach by the trade union movement,” he said, “not only here, but throughout the Caribbean where they are able to differentiate and establish the differences between rights and responsibilities.” He said the approach by the St. Lucia Fire Service Association was the opposite of what obtained in the region recently, that it was “sad” and disappointing.”
Clearly the minister has been out of tune as to what happened in Barbados just a few short months ago,where the government had to move to end a strike by sugar workers. More recently, strike action by immigration workers in Trinidad threatened to affect foreign investment and travel.
The reality is that except for Cuba and Venezuela, the trade union movement is alive and well in the Caribbean, where people protest and take strike action regularly. It is a fundamental right in all democracies.
In the case of Venezuela, with whom Saint Lucia signed a Petro Caribe deal and membership in ALBA alliance, protestors were recently met with guns, tear gas and batons. Maybe, just maybe, that is the Justice Minister’s reality. Luckily, it did not go that way with our striking firefighters who stood their ground for 11 days.
During that period a report by a commission of enquiry into the fire service, that the Justice Minister had earlier taken his time releasing, was miraculously made public. And then the government dealt with what the prime minister had declared out of the government’s hands. Albeit in the absence of prime minister Kenny Anthony who was away attending to “other matters”.
Last Thursday the firefighters ended their protest action following assurances by the government that their grievances would be dealt with at the soonest. Members of the Saint Lucia Fire Service Welfare Association, acting prime minister Phillip J Pierre, National Security and Home affairs and Justices Minister, Philip La Corbiniere, and Public Service Minister James Fletcher, attended the meeting.
The firefighters have since hailed chairman Shane Felix for his leadership and composure during the protest and negotiations, all of that despite attempts to scapegoat him by individuals with their own self-serving motives.
The STAR asked Felix this week how confident he was about the government’s assurances.
“Let us just say I hope the government keeps its word and soon. We entered this discussion in good faith; we discussed the issues and the acting prime minister, along with the public service and home affairs, agreed that they were going to look into the issues. We as an association have a responsibility to follow up as well, to ensure that the authorities follow through.”
Asked whether anything would be addressed besides the immediate secondment of the fire chief Leslie Fontenelle, Felix responded with one word: “No.”
“Among the issues we laid out that need urgent attention is that we are very much short-staffed,” he added, “while we have persons performing above their substantive ranks and also temporary staff who have met the qualifications. We are calling for these persons to be made permanent.”
Felix declared Claudius Francis also out of touch when he quoted on Jadia Jn Pierre’s new pet project “In Touch” the number of individuals employed in the fire service.
“We had about 150 firefighters on strike,” said Felix, “and the service comprises 280 fire officers. According to Francis there are 390 and about 100 were on strike. Well, maybe he has figures we don’t know about. As I have said, we are greatly short-staffed and we could definitely do with the additional 110 officers.”
Francis also stated on TV that if it were left to him, the striking fire officers would not have been paid for the days spent off the job.
Shane Felix responds: “The gentleman expressed an opinion but I wish he had kept it to himself, since it is no secret that he is affiliated with the current government. He is the president of the senate. So I really think that after we came out of a meeting that both parties had been cordial it served no good when Claudius Francis seemed to be aggravating the situation all over again. He seemed to be set on reopening old wounds and causing more injury.”
As for the disciplinary notice issued served on him during the strike by the Public Service Commission, all Felix would say was that he had responded and the matter was before the commission.
He said his association’s members are now clear that a secondment is not equal to a transfer. “While the fire chief is out on secondment to SLASPA the position of fire chief cannot be filled. Instead what we will have is an acting fire chief, giving Mr. Fontenelle the opportunity to return if he so chooses. That is our understanding.”
It is also widely believed that the deputy fire chief Lambert Charles will assume that role. However it is one that does not find favour with a high number of the association’s members. One particular fire officer is seeking legal redress against Lambert over an incident that occurred during the strike.
Felix told the STAR that the association was meeting with members in Dennery on Friday (yesterday) to apprise them of the latest development regarding “the sexual harassment issues,” and other matters discussed with government and to chart the way forward.
“This whole experience has been an eye-opener for most of us,” said Felix. “Our members now have a better understanding of how to deal with issues, the laws governing the association and so on. We have returned to work well aware that the public have their eyes on us and we are determined, despite everything, not to disappointment them.”