Press Release

PM Browne’s Attacks on the ABWU are a Distraction from the Failures of His Administration

Published On: May 24, 2024

On Saturday 11 & Saturday 18 May 2024, Prime Minister Gaston Browne, by way of his weekly radio program on Pointe FM, continued his spate of unprovoked, malicious and unsubstantiated attacks against the Antigua and Barbuda Workers’ Union (ABWU) to divert the public's attention from the real issues which plague Antigua and Barbuda such as crumbling infrastructure, rising cost of living, rise in crime, a failing health care system, dilapidated government buildings and most of all, an incompetent Government.

During these broadcasts, Browne accused the Antigua and Barbuda Workers’ Union (ABWU) of funding political candidates in the United Progressive Party while neglecting the interest of hotel workers.

These accusations are blatant lies and total fabrications designed to undermine the confidence of workers in the Antigua and Barbuda Workers Union. We wish to state emphatically that on NO occasion did the ABWU fund any UPP candidate. Not even former Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer, who was once the Assistant General Secretary, benefited from contributions by the Union; neither did former Member of Parliament, our current Deputy General Secretary, Chester Hughes, receive any contributions from the Union during his political career. Moreover, whenever the UPP utilises the facilities of the Antigua and Barbuda Workers’ Union, they pay for such use like any other client of the Union. To use our members' dues for political contributions without their consent is not only unethical, but also illegal and goes against the provisions of the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Code!

ABWU General Secretary, David Massiah

Our Union is a transparent organisation that fulfills its obligations by filing with the Labour Department on an annual basis, our audited financial statements and other requirements to ensure our annual registration, unlike other unions that fail to present these documents in a timely manner year after year. The ABWU is accountable to its general membership and an Executive Committee comprising the very workers that we represent. Unlike other Unions, our Conference is not influenced by political parties or their branches but by workers organised into sections. We are an independent organisation! However, we reserve the right to form alliances that are beneficial to our membership, whether now or in the future.

The Prime Minister, during his rant, posited that hotel workers in Antigua and Barbuda are impoverished, second-class citizens who are unable to afford a mortgage or car payment. His view of hotel workers is completely out of touch with reality. When was the last time the Prime Minister traversed the roadways along these hotel properties throughout Antigua and Barbuda? There is hardly any parking space to accommodate the multiple makes and models of vehicles that are owned by hotel workers. Some resorts have even had to expand their parking facilities to accommodate their staff’s vehicles. The Prime Minister is obviously seeking to project his dreadful and misguided view of workers in this industry. May we remind the Prime Minister that it was his government that insisted that for hotel workers to maintain their jobs they would be required to take a vaccine against their will. This dreadful policy resulted in the termination of several hotel workers. He gave them no choice as you would expect from a dictator.

Contrary to the assertions of the Prime Minister, the Antigua and Barbuda Workers’ Union remains focused and steadfast on improving the lives of all workers in Antigua and Barbuda by negotiating improved wages and other conditions of employment. However, it is the Prime Minister and his Government that must take full credit for going above and beyond to erode these benefits from the lives of workers in the form of out-of-control prices at supermarkets, petrol stations and utility costs. In this dreadful economy — that is the creation of his administration — workers must choose between paying bills and feeding their families. It is his poor social and economic policies that continue to induce unnecessary hardships in the country. Even under these circumstances, the present Administration has shown absolutely no compassion for workers! Instead, the Administration went to parliament and increased the rate of ABST, Social Security contributions, and other taxes, further pressuring the pockets of ordinary workers in Antigua and Barbuda.

Nevertheless, we anticipate that in the upcoming round of negotiations with the Antigua and Barbuda Hotels and Tourism Association (ABHTA), we will be able to deliver more increases and benefits for workers in the hospitality sector. Our goal is to win incremental and sustainable increases for workers over time to mitigate a spiraling and out-of-control cost of living caused by him and his inept leadership. Stability and growth in the hospitality sector cannot be attained through the reckless and irresponsible agitation that the Prime Minister called for during his broadcast. The tourism industry is fragile. We must work together — workers and employers — to achieve a more robust industry that will be able to feed generations to come. Gone are the days of unnecessary conflict without meaningful dialogue. God forbid that we were to do as the Prime Minister suggests; he himself would then accuse the Union of being an economic terrorist and trying to destroy the economy of Antigua and Barbuda. May we inform the Prime Minister that we are not irresponsible!

Not many years ago, the ABWU, working with its partners in Tourism, developed a Comprehensive Medical Plan with State Insurance Company Limited (SIC), specifically for the benefit of hotel workers. Without this policy, many hotel workers would find themselves at the mercy of a dilapidated public healthcare system that this Administration has done nothing to correct. Unrepaired and poorly maintained essential medical equipment is the order of the day in the public healthcare system of this failing administration. Our doctors, nurses, lab technicians and other support staff are trying their best every day, but how much can they accomplish when X-RAY, MRI and other machines remain broken for months at a time? We are working with the ABHTA and SIC to ensure that workers receive the full convenience and benefit of our Medical Policy, because it presents tremendous savings for workers and their families, who would have otherwise struggled to meet the cost of private medical care.

Additionally, hotel workers can anticipate a more decent retirement because the Union was able to establish a Retirement Fund to which employers contribute 2.5%. Since February 15, 2010, over 10 million dollars have been paid out of this fund to employees for various reasons, including support during the Covid 19 Pandemic. Up until April 2024, the total deposits in the ECAB account on behalf of member hotels of the ABHTA stands at an impressive 11 million dollars. This figure does not take into account the other properties such as Elite Resorts and Sandals that all have their own retirement/thrift funds. Truth be told, if we were to assess all the companies represented by the ABWU, the combined retirement fund would total over 50 million dollars, disbursed throughout the banking sector in Antigua and Barbuda.

Prior to the Covid-19 Pandemic, the ABWU, in partnership with the ABHTA and BauPanel, was making significant progress in developing an affordable housing program for hotel workers. Had it not been for the Pandemic, this project would have been a reality today. Nevertheless, we remain committed to seeing this project to fruition with the ABHTA's involvement. We therefore call on the government and the Prime Minister — if they are serious about hotel workers — to make available in trust to the ABWU and the ABHTA 10 acres of land and provide the requisite concessions to ensure that we can bring affordable housing to hotel workers. But we know that the Prime Minister is not genuinely concerned about workers and that this request will fall on deaf ears.

This present government continues to hold the record for being the most abusive and neglectful government when it comes to workers. While the ABWU and its partners were bringing relief to struggling hotel workers during the pandemic, the present Administration was busy imposing a mandatory vaccination policy. However, through our partnership with the ABHTA, approximately 4500 food packages were distributed to vulnerable families in the hospitality sector. Additionally, workers were able to access over two million dollars from their retirement fund, to help save their families from complete ruin. Where was the present Administration when hotel workers were experiencing the worst crisis of their lives? Truth be told, it was the Union and its partners who stood with the workers, not the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party and certainly not you Mr. Gaston Browne!

When employees of LIAT 1974 Ltd, Jolly Beach and CAS were sent home without their severance and other entitlements, it was the Union and its partners who again supported these workers. Food vouchers amounting to over $75,000 were distributed in partnership with Epicurean, Billy’s Food Mart and Community First Cooperative Credit Union. No other Union stepped up to meet the challenge presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. The ABWU even went as far as partnering with the Red Cross to bring additional relief to Jolly Beach workers. Much of this relief was made possible because of the Union’s foresight and prudent management of its financial resources. This prudent management has also enabled the Union to subsidize its Blue Gardens Snackette, which continues to provide affordable meals for workers every day. We invite the Prime Minister to join us for a nutritious local meal which can hardly be found in Antigua at an affordable price. Our snackette is patronised by workers from all walks of life including taxi drivers, customs officers, and employees of statutory corporations. Even the retired and unemployed choose the Blue Gardens Snackette for affordable and nutritious local dishes. Meanwhile, this government continues to do the bare minimum, if anything, to alleviate the suffering many of these workers continue to experience. Even our advice for the Government to enact legislation to protect workers’ severance has fallen on deaf ears. When will this government begin to treat workers with the dignity and respect that they deserve? When will the Prime Minister accept that severance is a legal and fundamental right of workers?

Our Union, on the other hand, has gone beyond the Collective Agreement and the strict definition of industrial relations, to negotiate exclusive discounts for our members through our Membership Card Program. These additional discounts have gone a long way towards bringing further relief to our members. Unlike this government, we are always contemplating innovative ideas to improve the lives of workers.

The Prime Minister’s unprofessional and reckless behavior regarding the confidential financial information of private organisations must not be tolerated. Under his dictatorial and manipulative style of leadership, it has become the norm for him to abuse the office of Prime Minister to access and expose sensitive financial information to the public to bully organisations and individuals. Furthermore, how could his colleague Ministers sit in Cabinet and participate in this disgraceful exercise? Does any of them have the decency to call out the Prime Minister on this wrong? The Antigua and Barbuda Workers’ Union is the most recent target of this type of vulgar exposure, but we have not been the only ones. Which other organisations' financial affairs has the PM maliciously pried into? Can any organisation in Antigua and Barbuda trust that the Prime Minister would not expose sensitive financial details? The Prime Minister must understand that other business professionals are listening, and investors are noting this unprofessional and cavalier handling of private financial information, which he is privy to, only by virtue of his being the Prime Minister. The implications of this type of behavior can have serious repercussions for a small island state that is heavily dependent on foreign direct investment. Again, we call upon the Prime Minister to immediately desist from this nonsensical and unethical practice.

The Antigua and Barbuda Workers’ Union is addressing the challenges that confront workers in real and tangible ways. Meanwhile, this government is fixating on the financials of the Union’s snackette. Where is the national planning for dealing with the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs, a shrinking financial sector, rising unemployment and the displacement of the middle class within our society? These are the crucial issues that the Cabinet should be contemplating! Our Union, on the other hand, is investing over 80 thousand dollars annually on training and developing workers across multiple industries, including hospitality. This is not a recent endeavor, it has been a foundational part of our Union’s agenda since its inception in 1967. Our Training Officer executes a robust calendar of workshops and seminars each year, covering a variety of subjects including Occupational Safety and Health, Division “C” of the Labour Code and Foreign Languages to name a few. Moreover, the ABWU through its partner, Cipriani College of Labour and Cooperative Studies has facilitated several scholarships for its members in disciplines such as Industrial Relations, Human Resource Management and Project Management.

The Antigua and Barbuda Workers' Union remains strong. We will not be dictated to by this or any other government. We know that the Prime Minister takes umbrage at our union because we are unwilling to cower and yield to his demands like other unions. The fact that the Prime Minister could use a union platform on Labour Day to attack our union — Antigua and Barbuda Workers’ Union — shows the extent of his influence on that organisation and the level of compromise that exists among some of the very individuals that are supposed to defend workers. But our members and Executive are committed and not easily swayed by threats, lies or foolish enticements. We are focused on our mandate to protect the rights of workers and improve their conditions of work. We are not guided or blinded by any political agenda, and we will continue to resist all attempts to erode the rights of workers and undermine the role of the Union.

As our nation prepares to welcome hundreds of visitors for the SIDS conference, we encourage our members, particularly those in the hospitality sector to give our guests an excellent experience in our country despite the unnecessary everyday hardships that we as residents live through because of the government's poor social and economic policies. We are confident that our hospitality workers will display the highest levels of professionalism, unlike the Prime Minister who seems to excel only in bringing disgrace to the office he holds.

Finally, Prime Minister Browne, we call on you to retract all untruthful and malicious statements made about the Antigua and Barbuda Workers’ Union and to desist from making any further unfounded accusations against the Union.