Fire Service Explains Right to Protest

On Monday March 4 not only were the island’s students feeling the bite of teachers sudden illnesses here again, but so too were several business persons, visitors and travelers who felt the effects of fire officers also calling in sick. This resulted in the disruption of services at GFL Charles airport in Castries.
This past Monday and Tuesday, Government employed workers staged another round of “sick-outs” in the ongoing wage disputes between the Government, represented by a Government Negotiating Team (GNT) and workers and unions represented by the Trade Union Federation (TUF) here. The negotiations are for the triennium 2010/2013, with the Government at first handing the workers zero percent each for the three years and a one off bonus of EC$1000. This was flatly rejected by the workers through their unions and after months of negotiations it came down to the Government offering of 4 percent whilst the Unions shifted to nine percent. This they later adjusted to six percent, with the undertaking that Government acquiesced to eight conditions. These included divesting of Crown lands to the Union to sell to members, duty free vehicles for travelling officers, efforts to address the gap between Government’s retirement age and the age at which officers are entitled to an NIC pension.
In an address to the nation last week Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony flatly rejected the Unions proposal of six percent plus the eight conditions offering again the four percent but this time with certain benefits. These included allowances to uniformed workers namely the police, nurses, fire officers and correctional officers and an annual allowance of EC$500 for teachers to assist with the purchasing of school supplies.
At a meeting on Friday most of the Unions and associations attached to the TUF rejected this latest offer by the Government leading to this week’s sick out. The most visibly affected by those sick outs has been the islands school which, whilst being officially open according to the Government, have operated on skeleton staff making the environment for teaching or learning near impossible.
However on Monday another group, the travelling public, as well as local businesses were affected when several fire officers reportedly “took ill” forcing the cancellation of LIAT flights in and out of George FL Charles airport. Not only did this leave several passengers stranded but also affected businesses dependent on LIAT’s air cargo service.
A press release issued by the airline Monday read; “the Management of LIAT (1974) Ltd wishes to advise its customers and the general public that it has been forced to suspend flights into and out of the George F.L. Charles Airport in St Lucia due to the absence of fire services at the airport. LIAT wishes to apologize for any inconvenience caused.”                 The communique was signed by LIAT’s head of Corporate Communications Desmond L. Brown.
On Tuesday the STAR spoke with Shane Felix president of the Fire Service Association who told us that his association had not sanctioned any actions by members in protest relating to the ongoing wage negotiations and was somewhat surprised when he first heard the news.
“We first met as an association to get a mandate from our members. Then we met as part of the TUF on Monday and we will stand by the collective response of the TUF when a position is being communicated and not as a single unit,” Felix told the STAR. “I can tell you the message coming out is that we are not going to accept the four percent, but as to what course of action will be taken next as far as the negotiations go we are waiting on a collective response from the TUF, which we will then take to our members who will then give us the mandate as to how we should proceed.”
Asked about the reaction by some members of the public about the fire service not being allowed to engage in protest action since it is part of the essential services Shane Felix responded that this was a misconception.
“This is something the association has tried to clear for some time now. We have been clarifying that we do not fall under the Essential Services Act like health workers and the police (who cannot go on strike) but we are under the Protective Services Act and this act does not forbid such and there is a difference.”
In 1999 the Registration, Status and Recognition of Trade Unions and Employers Organization Act replaced the Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Ordinance of 1959 here.
This new law created for the first time legislative provisions for the Collective Bargaining process. Although Section 3 of the Act exempted members of the protective services (Royal Saint Lucia Police Force, the Port Police, the Fire Service and Her Majesty’s Prisons) from the provisions of this Act the staff associations representing the protective services form part of the negotiations with the Government through the TUF.

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