• Unions slam ‘murky’ package as ‘busting tactic’
• Carrier brands ‘most generous offer in Caribbean’
• Aimed at 63 workers closest to retirement age
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas Telecommunications Company’s (BTC) two unions yesterday revealed they have filed a trade dispute over what the carrier branded “the most generous retirement package in the Caribbean”.
Ricardo Thompson, the Bahamas Communications and Public Managers Union’s (BTC) president, told Tribune Business that its attorneys were examining the Enhanced Early Retirement Programme (EERP) being offered to 63 staff aged between 55 and 60 years-old on the basis that the carrier had not complied with their industrial agreement.
He and Dino Rolle, president of the Bahamas Communications and Public Officers Union (BCPOU), which represents BTC’s line staff, argued that the company had made the offer directly to all workers falling into this age bracket rather than going through the two unions first - something they said was mandated by their respective industrial deals.
But Garfield ‘Garry’ Sinclair, BTC’s chief executive, told Tribune Business that the unions were trying to find fault with the process because they were unable to criticise what the carrier was offering to older and long-serving employees.
Asserting that BTC had consulted the two unions at a December 30 meeting, which was confirmed by Mr Rolle, Mr Sinclair emphasised the “voluntary” nature of the package being offered and said the communications provider had set no target number for reducing its workforce.
He added that the deadline for workers to accept the EERP offer had been extended by one week, from January 18 to January 25, to enable all those involved to obtain the details required to make an informed decision on whether they will accept.
Mr Sinclair, who declined to disclose the financial terms on offer, said the number of older BTC staff signalling their acceptance was already “in the double digits”, but both union leaders argued that the offer’s week-long extension was granted because the package was not enticing enough to their members.
“Both unions felt very strongly that BTC’s approach was either a union busting tactic or seeking to destabilise the unions,” Mr Thompson told Tribune Business. “They sought to put things forward and go directly to the members. We have a major problem with that whole process.
“It’s not the way we do business. We are unionised in The Bahamas. You have to come through the unions and negotiate. We may tell you to forget it, and they’re trying to fight us on that. It’s a one-off thing where they’re obviously targeting those 63 persons. There’s no room for negotiation. They want to go directly to the members, and it reeks of union busting and a strategy to disturb the union.
“The persons in this age group have been there the longest, and as a result have salaries that are high. They are obviously targeting long-serving members with high salaries.... We have filed a trade dispute, and are letting our lawyers look at all these things. It’s definitely murky to us, and is not consistent with what we know to be industrial harmony.
Mr Thompson argued that the package being offered to his 23 qualifying members was receiving little response because BTC was offering to pay those who accepted in annual installments, rather than an upfront lump sum.
He revealed that those aged between 55 and 57 were being offered 60 percent of their salary every year for up to three years, together with due pension and other benefits, while those aged 57 and upwards would receive 100 percent of their salary upfront for each of those three years.
Pointing out that BTC has staged numerous voluntary separation exercises since its privatisation in 2011, when Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC) bought a controlling 49 percent equity interest, Mr Thompson said: “Every time there’s an offer of this nature the entire company becomes disturbed. They’re unsure what the final number is, what they will do the next day. Every time they turn they get surprised.”
The union chief added that should all 63 persons accept the latest package, BTC’s workforce would number around 330-340 persons. “There’s a lot of contract workers and temporary workers all over the place,” he added.
Mr Rolle, meanwhile, urged the Government to use its 49 percent interest in BTC to intervene with senior management, CWC and the latter’s parent, Liberty Latin America. He added that the union’s had “forced management’s hand” on the EERP after hearing “talk” that another voluntary separation exercise was planned.
“We had a joint membership meeting, and staff were expressing outrage at management over the New Year’s greeting. The first thing the company decided to do was contact staff and offer separation packages. Something’s wrong with that,” Mr Rolle said.
However, Mr Sinclair rebuffed union concerns and accused them of focusing on process rather than substance. “I would suggest the old maxim: When you cannot define a problem with the policy or initiative itself you kick up a fuss over the process,” he told Tribune Business. “Incontrovertibly this is the most generous early retirement package not just in The Bahamas but the Caribbean.”
Mr Sinclair said the December 30, 2020, meeting with the two BTC unions had not seen the two sides agree on everything but “we got the feedback we needed to ensure within the envelope we could afford we were providing colleagues with the most generous early retirement package in the Caribbean”.
With no workforce reduction target in mind, Mr Sinclair added that BTC had wanted to provide older workers close to retirement with financial “comfort” and options for their future given the ongoing uncertainty produced by the COVID-19 pandemic.