Workers’ Union officials shares a list of local labour-relations shortcomings with US Embassy’s fact-finding officers

The United States Embassy’s newly appointed Country Officer, Tabitha Snowbarger, recently held discussions with the Antigua and Barbuda Workers’ Union (ABWU), during which several issues were discussed – including the impact of Chinese development projects, migrant workers, and the absence of stakeholder engagement.

Snowbarger and her colleague, Amelia Swift, political specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown, were gathering information on labour relations and workers’ rights for the 2022 Antigua and Barbuda Human Rights Report.

David Massiah, the Union’s General Secretary, says a large part of the deliberations centered on concerns about the way in which the Chinese projects were negotiated and executed.

Massiah says such projects have brought little benefit to ordinary Antiguans and Barbudans, since the local labour force has been limited to menial, low-paying jobs.

Further, he laments that opportunities for the transfer of skills have been almost non-existent.  And he notes that the failure to train locals in maintenance has created additional challenges for workers whose jobs depend on the functioning of the Chinese equipment.

Moreover, Massiah adds, some Chinese projects have violated environmental codes and disregarded local health and safety standards.

In the meantime, Chester Hughes, the Union’s Deputy General Secretary, is urging Caribbean governments to “stop looking towards fast-paced, competitive development and look towards slow-paced meaningful development.”

The Embassy’s Country Officer reportedly enquired about the conditions of employment for migrant workers, and Massiah revealed that exploitation of this group is common.

In supporting this position, Hughes says the current policy governing work permits makes it exceptionally difficult for migrant workers to move within the labour market.

At present, he notes, work permits are not transferable from one employer to another; rather, immigrant workers must pay for a new permit each time they change employment.  And Hughes points out that the cost of work permits has tripled within recent years.

Another area of concern that emerged during the discussions was the need for a tripartite approach to the ratification and implementation of international conventions.

Massiah says there were no consultations with stakeholders ahead of the ratification of ILO Convention 190, and this resulted in certain anomalies that could have been addressed prior to ratification.

Accordingly, he insists, there is need for greater dialogue as Antigua and Barbuda joins the rest of the world in preparing for a “just transition” to more sustainable forms of energy.

Massiah chided the Gaston Browne Administration and its “just transitioning” team for attempting to use the Union to “rubber stamp” its presentation at this year’s COP22 meeting – instead of seeking a genuine exchange of concerns on the impact on jobs.

Finally, the resumption of training opportunities in Industrial Relations was also discussed, with the Union identifying three priority areas: Labour Statistics; Mediation; and Labour Inspection for Labour Practices.

The US Embassy has expressed an interest in facilitating the training.