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Let us take unification into our hands

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Generally, reaction to the inauguration of the OECS Assembly has been positive throughout the Eastern Caribbean. That is a most welcome development which augurs well for the future of the integration movement in the region. That is not to say that there are not weaknesses in the process,{{more}} for those who have publicly commented have not hesitated to point out shortcomings. What is important now is that these criticisms and shortcomings are taken on board by our leaders and that the necessary actions for redress be initiated. Too many times in the past, our efforts at unification have floundered because those in office would neither listen nor learn.

In the meantime, we cannot afford to simply fold arms and wait to see what the political leadership is doing. We have no alternative but to take up the challenge to make the integration movement work in our favour. Such is the fickle nature of much of our political leadership, and indeed of the people themselves, that temporary individual successes or failures one way or another are used as excuses to try and foolishly go it alone. Our reality in these mini-states is that we will all either sink or swim together.

Among the golden opportunities provided by the OECS unification thrust as enshrined in the Revised Treaty of Basseterre, is that permitting citizens of the independent signatory nations to enter the respective territories, to remain for an indefinite period, should the citizen so desire, and to have the right to work, establish businesses, provide services or reside. All that is required, except in cases where there are security concerns, is relevant identification (national identification or voter registration card, driver’s permit), and filling out the requisite entry form at the port of entry.

This opening to freedom of movement of people, capital and ideas is one which literally cries out for action on our part. In particular, the organisations of the working people need to utilize it to strengthen their own capacity to organize and operate in the best interests of the people they represent.

Take the trade union movement as an example. Anyone familiar with trade union affairs in the Eastern Caribbean would know that the labour movement is under severe pressure. Increasingly, the future of small unions with limited scope of operations, is being called into question. There is, however, scope for much broader range of action if we take the OECS as a whole. One regional example is that of LIAT, the regional airline. LIAT, while jointly owned by a few governments in the area, has a unified management structure. However, it employs hundreds of workers across the region, who for a long time were represented by different unions, including tiny individual LIAT workers’ unions, as was the case in St Vincent and the Grenadines.

As the contradictions between management and workers heightened however, more and more LIAT workers, right down the island chain, began to look to the leadership of the militant Technical and Allied Workers Union in Grenada for leadership. Given the existing individual weaknesses and limitations, it surely must be to the benefit of the workers if there was a single cross-border union representation.

It shouldn’t stay there. Public service and teachers’ unions do not have to wait on OECS political union to create a single regional body, combining strengths and minimizing weaknesses, as well as helping to isolate narrow parochialism and opportunism. Workers in the hospitality industry, many of whom remain unorganised to this day, can benefit greatly from a strong unified representation, which ensures that, whether employed by Sandals in Antigua or St Lucia or in the increasing number of resorts in Buccama, Canouan, Nevis or Carriacou, their interests are adequately covered.

The farmers of the Windward Islands have long since recognised the benefit of closer integration. Facing common problems in agriculture, a first step was taken as long ago as 1982 to establish a loose umbrella body, WINFA (the Windward Islands Farmers’ Association). External pressures, in the banana industry in particular, left farmers with little choice but to set up a more integrated single unit with its Secretariat in Kingstown. That became the base for extensive lobbying and advocacy, without which individual units would have disappeared. It remains perhaps the best example of regional integration “from below”.

The business sector can also derive benefits by such closer integration. The respective Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the various employers’ organisations will be in a much better position to advocate on behalf of their members, to lobby for more favourable policies and to facilitate joint investment throughout the region.

The exclusion of the private sector, workers, farmers and civil society organisations from the highest consultative and decision-making organs in the region must not be an excuse for us to shy away from deeper integration. Indeed, it is all the more reason why we should do so.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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