Large part of the work force not part of a labor union: Elshot and Thompson urge workers to get unionized

POSTED: 01/9/13 11:36 PM

St. Maarten – An estimated 35 percent of the work force in St. Maarten is not unionized, Theophilus Thompson, president of the Windward Islands Chamber of Labor Unions (Wiclu) said yesterday. “I have no specific current data on the level of unionism, but previous surveys indicate that it’s around 35 percent. A large part of the work force is not unionized.”

Thompson said that workers in the constructions sector and in particular in the retail sector are not unionized. “The Chinese only employ Chinese, and the Indians mainly employ Indians. These two groups control retail. It is a major problem. There is exploitation, especially in the retail sector, but employees are afraid to go to a union.”

Wiclu Vice President Claire Elshot urged employees to get unionized. “There are too many workers right now that are not part of a union. Only when there is a crisis do they go to a union.”

Unlike on the French side of the island, companies do not have to have a minimum number of employees to be able to unionize, Thompson said. “It is 50 percent plus one, so in a company with 5 employees you need 3 workers to establish collective representation by a union.”

Thompson said that his Windward Islands Federation of Organized Labor (Wifol) has changed its policy for accepting members. “We accept anyone now individually or collectively in an attempt to break through the barrier at the Chinese and the Indian stores.”

Thompson said that employees also have the option to take their complaints about their working conditions to the labor office. “But by offering individual membership, Wifol now has an alternative.”

The union-leader recalled a story with “a family group of stores” in Philipsburg where, before 10-10-10, several employees came to the Wifol because they had some issues. “We talked to the employer and these issues were resolved. But shortly afterwards he turned his employees over to an employment agency. Only the ones who kept resisting this and who sought support from the union remained thus employed.”

Thompson reiterated his aversion of employment agencies. “We are against them because employers use them to move away from their responsibilities. These employment agencies offer 3-month contracts and they move their people from one place to the other.”

Elshot noted that the workers’ rights and protection have the unions’ attention. “There is legislation pending; employment agencies that they are going to be regulated, but we still have our reservations. At the same time, we have to look at the pros and cons and at the economic reality on our island.”

“We have to look critically at the role of employment agencies,” Elshot said. “Right now, workers lack legal protection. Some have been working for ten or even sixteen years on contracts with every time a break of three months, while we know that the work continues. When these employees claim a permanent contract they are dismissed.”

On a positive note, Thompson said that his Asewi-union (Association of staff employees Windward Islands) signed a collective labor agreement with utilities company Gebe for middle management and administrative personnel after several months of negotiations. It concerns 46 employees.

“We have now started negotiations for line-employees,” Thompson said. “We expect to conclude these talks by the end of February. This collective labor agreement is a 32-article document. Previously, when these employees were represented by the Ufa, they never had a collective labor agreement, but the Wifol is now putting one together.”

Thompson noted a trend at Gebe to rehire retired employees. “That blocks progress and options for promotion,” he said. “Retirees ought to be into coaching younger employees. There is a lack of young people in the company right now.”

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