Newly established Saba United People’s Labour Union and Association (SUPLUA) held its first public town hall meeting to inform the community of their efforts at the Anglican Community Canon Hassell Center on Thursday evening, reports The Daily Herald.
SUPLUA President Ludwina Charles introduced the board, consisting of Vice President Antonio Hughes, Secretary Kenrick Lake, Treasurer Xiofianka Coffie and board members Aleya Abraham, Shenella Petit-Homme and Sharon Hassell.
The evening’s keynote speaker was SUPLUA adviser Gregory Arrindell of St. Maarten. The core message was that this new union is established for all labour sectors of the island, and that all employees can request their workplace to be unionized. This local union is the outcome of expressed interest in the community. Charles recalled the rumours since the onset of the transition of Saba Healthcare Foundation when employees were frightened and believed that many would lose their jobs, or that benefits would be cut. She pointed to the contrary results after the unionization of the health care sector on Saba and to an encouraging track record of delivering on all initial promises. The new union, Charles explained was established to best serve the local community, acknowledging that the challenges experienced on Saba and St. Eustatius are substantially different from those on St. Maarten, for instance where different legislation in the two Caribbean Netherlands’ islands is concerned.
While SUPLUA seeks to extend to Statia, it will focus its efforts first on Saba. Charles apologized for poor event advertising, which resulted in a poor turnout, and informed participants on how to contact SUPLUA and obtain forms to join the organization. Those present had a number of questions for the union representatives. Interest in union representation appears to be most pronounced in the education sector and with the Public Works Department. In order to be able to unionize a workplace, more than 50 per cent of the employees of that institution have to sign up for membership. The Government Security Service Department appears to have already secured this criterion in seeking unionization. A primary school employee asked if unionization of the education sector would be feasible having in mind the recurrent practice to fire teachers en masse and the likelihood that newcomers would be unwilling to challenge the abuse. Charles explained that irrespective of teacher retention challenges, all staff of Saba Comprehensive School and Sacred Heart School are taken into account. If more than 50 percent of current employees, including administrative and janitorial staff of the respective institutions sign union membership forms, the boards of these two schools would be legally obliged to accept unionization and SUPLUA would be able to fight for the protection of workers’ rights, it was said.
Charles stressed that SUPLUA is run by locals, established and focusing solely on Saba. While “change is inevitable,” she said, “we can control how much change we want,” and how to formulate and phase the implementation of solutions. SUPLUA’s goal, she said, is to prove that “we, who are working for you the Island Government or for you the private sector, or you the school boards, are the ones who are making the decisions, not you.” Other representatives added that decisions would have to be made together with employers and that SUPLUA would seek to foster a working relationship. Arrindell stressed the unique situation on Saba, where the private sector is supportive of union goals and strengthening its voice because they see their employees’ interests as a catalyst of needed change in the economic outlook of the island. This potential union-business partnership may carry weight, he argued, in convincing a reluctant national government that it has no basis for enforcing an unrealistic minimum wage. This national cabinetenforced minimum wage, he explained, maintains unnecessary high levels of poverty in a questionable legal environment that makes Caribbean Netherlands’ people second-class citizens, which is a legally untenable situation, in his view. Arrindell counselled SUPLUA to accommodate the business community’s interests as ultimately the local labour market depends on a positive symbiosis between the two.