The Virgin Islands Workers Union is now ten years old, but President of the organization, Donald E. de Castro disclosed that the decade has not been all roses as the organization is still fighting for recognition and support.

At a press conference held on 5 February, the Trade Unionist announced that since the Union’s inception the membership has dwindled to less than 100 members — with the core of the figure being residents of Virgin Gorda. He said that, as it stands, current members are reluctant to take the lead in the organization, and there is a struggle to maintain an executive body.

“Some just don’t want the position…the membership is the problem! People feel intimidated because they are here on a work permit. What we try to explain to them is under the immigration law and the Labour Code once you are here and permitted to work legally by both Immigration and Labour you have all the right to protection,” the Union President announced.

De Castro said that over the years many persons contacted the Union to enquire how they can join, obtained details but never returned until they needed the Union’s help: “We can’t do anything for you if you are not a member of the Union. People have to realise that businesses have an association called the Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association, and they are businesses looking out for their interest. They are not looking out for your interest.”

He said: Unions, business owners and Government need to work together, and all parties should be able to iron out their differences, with Government intervention being the last resort: “The last thing the Union wants in these modern days is people talking about a strike. We need negotiations. If you have a problem on your job or with your employer as an individual there is a great difficulty to get it solved, because they know as an individual they can deal with you how they want. We need people to understand that unity is strength,” de Castro added.
The seasoned Trade Unionist noted: “All of the problems we are having with Little Dix Bay, LIME, and all of these places downsizing and buying out companies, nobody knows what is going on until it is over. If there was a union there representing these people all these things will have to be in the contract, so that you can know what is happening ahead of time. The same thing happened in Barbados. Barbados said that they were going to lay some people off, now all of a sudden they’re trying to have some negotiations — That’s because the Unions are involved, if the Unions weren’t involved….”

One of the things, the Union President explained is that persons want to see the Union taking actions, but he explained that this cannot be done without a vibrant membership. He said that the function of a Union is not to harm or hamper businesses, but to ensure that there is fairness for the people who work there. “Nobody wants to join the Union, but you can stay on the outside and change the Union.”
De Castro says that he wants people to understand the importance of getting together, and he disclosed that he feels that the time has come for him to pass the mantle on, noting that he will be 80 years old next year.

Labour Interaction
Mr. de Castro stated that his attempts to have a sit-down with the Labour Department is proving difficult despite his many tries. The Virgin Islands Workers Union President told reporters: “I tried to have several meetings with the Labour Commissioner, I even went to her office and was told that she was busy. I left messages, I called, but I could never get her. I am going to try again this year to contact her.” He explained that he would like to meet with the Labour Commissioner before he meets with the Labour Minister.

De Castro said that among the issues to be discussed with the Labour Commissioner is the meeting that the Labour Department had with the International Labour Organization, but did not invite the Virgin Islands Workers Union to be a part of.

He said that in addition to being registered with the Supreme Court he was informed that there is a process to become recognized, and stated that he would like to hear from the Commissioner what these recognition processes are. De Castro further mentioned that there are a lot of matters that he believes can be solved with a meeting with the Commissioner.

Minimum wage
In response to questions about the lamented minimum wage and public calls for wage increase, de Castro said: “Minimum wage can be increased but one of the problems I have with minimum wage is this: let’s say the minimum wage should change from $4.00 to $5.00. There is no guarantee that the person currently making $5.00 dollar will get an increase, and that is where Unions come into the negotiations….The benefit that surrounds what we get is equally important to how much money you make.”
He also stated that employees need to do their best on their job, and prove to their employers that they deserve more than the minimum wage. Nonetheless, the Union President stated that he does agree that the minimum wage should be increased; however, he added that he cannot say by how much.

Hospitality Pooled Tip Saga
The Virgin Islands Workers Union President says that he has an issue that hospitality workers are being forced to divide their tips with all over employees in the company, and stated that tip sharing should be a personal choice and not a company policy. “If you hired a cook and you are paying that cook $10.00 an hour, and the wait staff is making $1.50 an hour; the wait staff should be able to make $10.00 an hour from their tip before they give away their tip.”

De Castro explained that in many businesses there is a pooling policy where better paid workers are also taking from the tips earned by the lesser paid service staff.

If you are in the Union you can demand your pay as a cook, and don’t depend on taking the tips from the service staff. What is yours is yours.”

He also pointed out that there is an issue where some cooks try to be spiteful to wait staff who don’t share their tips by deliberately working slowly on orders: “If you don’t tip the cook, you go in, give them the order and they hold up the order, but you are not holding the service staff up, you are holding the customer. People don’t understand if you decided you wanted to be a cook, and the other a wait staff why are you upset you are not getting the tip.”

Seasonal Unemployment
He said that a lot of Union members complain about seasonal unemployment and shortened work days; all of which affects their wages. However, Mr. de Castro pointed out that as far as he is aware the Labour Code says nothing about employers laying off employees for three months without payment obligations.

If I hired you for a year, and I say I am going to pay you $4.00 an hour, and that you are entitled to two weeks vacation per year. How can I say I am going to let you got from July to August because I cannot afford to pay you…If you don’t have money to pay that is not that employee’s problem because you hired them for a year with only two weeks vacation, unless you sit down and negotiate with them. These are the things I have a problem with. These people should be given some form of compensation during the period they are laid off. It can become a problem if people are not working and they have rent to pay and have to eat… something needs to be done,” the Union President said.

The Virgin Islands Workers Union was established on 8 February, 2004, and registered with the Supreme Court on 21 April, 2004. Persons interested in joining the Union are asked to call 494 4629.