26 November 2011

Turks & Caicos Civil Servants: "We want our country back"

By Vivian Tyson 
Senior Editor

“We’ve had enough of the Brits. It’s time for them to leave the Turks and Caicos Islands because all they are doing in messing up our country and inflicting pain and suffering on our people, while they are living it up and enjoying themselves like they are on an extended vacation." - A Turks & Caicos Islander

Hundreds of angry Civil Servants in the Turks and Caicos Islands went on strike early Tuesday morning, disconnecting the power to Government’s administrative building in the island-capital of Grand Turk and marching to the Governor’s office where they chained doors to a building in which a meeting of UK-advisors was being held. 

Wearing red shirts and brandishing strongly-worded placards, the civil servants vented their rage at the Interim’s Government’s austerity measures which include plans to sever 300 of them by the end of the year. 

The majority of Government services in Grand Turk, where most of the country’s 2,500 civil servants are located, ground to a crippling halt. In Providenciales, the most populous of the 30 Turks and Caicos Islands and which is located 22 miles from Grand Turk, about 50 civil servants also took industrial action, blocking the entry to the Immigration Department where they held a rally.

Government schools were closed country-wide, as well as the Treasury Departments, Labour, Immigration, the Maritime Division and a section of the Judiciary, including the Labour Tribunal. There were reports that the strike action had affected domestic and international flights, but John Smith, CEO for the Turks and Caicos Islands Airports Authority said the industrial action did not affect aviation. In a few instances there were slight delays, he said, but this could be attributed to several factors, including the weathy.

Later in the afternoon, about 60 civil servants descended on the Providenciales International Airport where they chanted “We want our country back! We want our country back!”

Dr. Rufus Ewing, President of the Civil Service Association (CSA) which organised the strike, took a microphone and encouraged the civil servants to stand up for their rights.

“We’ve had enough of the British Government and their oppressive policies,” he stated. “Enough is enough.” 

He then led a motorcade from the airport to the Hilly Ewing Building (named after his father, a former political leader) which houses the (British) Special Investigation and Prosecution Team (SIPT) and the (British) Governor’s office in Providenciales.

Ewing said Civil Servants are protesting because of the Interim Government’s failure to extend the deadline for expression of interest in the voluntary severance scheme for all civil servants and its failure to provide a severance package based on civil servants' highest basis salary during their period of employment. 

The CSA is also against Government’s failure to reduce the period of ban from the civil service from 4 years to 2 years and its failure to consider staff redeployment before voluntary or compulsory redundancy, and its unwillingness to complete a proper public sector reform assessment before redundancy. The association is also up in arms because of increased taxation, significantly reduced scholarship opportunities, reduced social services support, increasing unemployment, reduced support for Youth programmes, unfair laws and unfair policies that are detrimental to the well-being of Turks and Caicos Islands’ children.

In a telephone interview from Grand Turk, one irate protestor told The SUN: “We’ve had enough of the Brits. It’s time for them to leave the Turks and Caicos Islands because all they are doing in messing up our country and inflicting pain and suffering on our people, while they are living it up and enjoying themselves like they are on an extended vacation. They just don’t care about our people. Enough is enough!” 

A range of UK Government funded advisers are now in place to offer support and guidance to the Governor and to the public service after the British suspended parts of the Turks and Caicos Islands Constitution on August 14, 2009. Ministerial government and the House of Assembly were suspended meaning that Cabinet no longer exists and the House of Assembly was dissolved and Members’ seats are vacated. The constitutional right to trial by jury was also suspended.

Reacting to the strike action, British-appointed Chief Executive, Martin Stanley, who is currently acting as Governor, threatened to dock a day’s pay from the striking workers, while adding that Government has contingency plans in place for such events.

“During the strike as we concentrate on essential and emergency services, we ask the people of TCI to be patient as they will not receive the usual high standard of public service on strike days,” 

Stanley said in a press release. “I would also ask those strikers who work with the vulnerable members of our society to continue to balance their desire to protest with ensuring that there is adequate service provision to the needy. While there is no law against striking in the TCI , clearly there are consequences for workers who do strike, such as losing a day’s pay.”

In a separate statement issued on Monday night, Stanley said he was surprised that the CSA called a strike concerning the terms of the voluntary severance scheme.

“This scheme offers public servants the opportunity to volunteer to leave the service in return for severance payments which can amount to as much as two years salary. Furthermore, the original offer was improved following representations from the CSA. The offer to weekly paid staff was approximately doubled, for example,” he said.

“I appreciate that the CSA would have preferred the scheme to be even more generous but – as we have already received nearly 500 expressions of interest in this scheme – there is clearly a large number of civil servants who see this as an opportunity. We are currently generating individual offers for each of these people, and we will ask them to indicate whether or not they wish to accept by Friday, 9 Dec 2011.”

He also stated that the Interim Administration is “deeply sympathetic to the challenging circumstances faced by public servants” as it works to improve the Government’s financial situation and rebalance the TCI civil service to better meet local needs and priorities.

“I am therefore keen to continue to meet with the Civil Service Association to discuss their concerns and would ask again for their support in making the changes and improvements required for the greater good of the TCI,” Stanley added.

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