40th anniversary 1981 Bills: Essential Services
As the industrial climate in SVG worsened during the month of April 1981, rumours began to be circulated that the government was planning to introduce legislation to muzzle the trade union movement and to curtail the rights of workers to take industrial action in defence of their just demands.
The veteran leader of the Commercial Technical and Allied Workers Union (CTAWU), the late Bro. Cyril Roberts, himself warned of this probability in his May Day address. In less than a week it became clear that this was no idle allegation.
Barrister Mr. Adrian Saunders, today President of the Caribbean’s highest legal institution, the Caribbean Court of Justice, but then a leading member of the United Peoples Movement (UPM), after gaining access to what was then a secret legal document, addressed a CTAWU rally in the then Market Square on May 5.
What he had to say visibly shook and shocked the audience. Mr Saunders disclosed that based on the information to which he had access the government had drafted two pieces of legislation aimed at repressing the workers’ unions and was intent on getting Parliamentary approval for such measures.
Two days later, he was proven right, for when the House of Assembly met on May 7, among the matters before Parliament were two draconian pieces of legislation, the likes of which had not been seen since the days of colonialism and slavery.
These two, the Essential services Amendment Bill, and the Public Safety and Public Order Bill, were together if enforced, designed to muzzle trade unions and to give legality to actions to trample on the democratic rights of the wider population.
In particular, the Essential Services Bill sought to amend the 1965 Essential Services Ordinance by so broadening the definition of essential services as to give government the power to declare virtually any service or production area as an “essential service” and hence, to make any industrial action as illegal, if it chose to do so. It was going to allow the government to deny the right of workers to take industrial action, if they chose to do so.
The 1965 Ordinance had spelt out specific areas as being essential services-electricity services, health and sanitation and water services. The new Bill broadened this definition and ominously added, “any other service which the Cabinet may, having regard to the life and well-being of the community, declare, by notification to be an essential service”. In other words, Cabinet was now seeking to get parliamentary approval to arm itself with the power to outlaw industrial action.
Other aspects of this anti-working class bill also strengthened the hands of the besieged government vis a vis the trade union movement. In the context of the charged times, it was clear that rather than try to resolve the explosive industrial and social situation in the country, the government was taking a heavy-handed approach which would have dire consequences.
It was not a singular piece of repressive legislation for its companion, the Public safety and Public Order Bill was even worse as we shall see next week.