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Bus dispute still on even after row referred to arbitration

Bus chaos: public transport disruptions look likely to continue tomorrow (File photograph)

The bus dispute remained in deadlock last night after negotiations stalled.

The Government referred the dispute to arbitration on Monday in the hope that, with any further work stoppage ruled illegal, bus drivers would be forced back to work.

But Chris Furbert, the president of the Bermuda Industrial Union, confirmed that drivers had stayed off the job for a 12th day — and would continue to do so until the dispute was resolved.

Mr Furbert added that a meeting would be held today to discuss the next steps.

He said that the dispute was at “a stalemate”, and that there had been no communication with the Government.

He confirmed that ferry pilots from the Marine and Ports division of the union had also stayed off work today in support of bus drivers.

Mr Furbert maintained the union’s position that the industrial action was not “a strike”.

He insisted that bus drivers had no alternative but to down tools over fears about potential Covid-19 exposure in the workplace.

How it all started

The dispute between bus operators and the Department of Public Transport started on September 17 over concerns that Covid safety protocols were not being adhered to.

Bus operators refused to show up for work after more than 30 staff had either been struck down by the coronavirus or ordered into quarantine because of close contact. Drivers, represented by the Bermuda Industrial Union, asked for assurances that their working environment was safe.

Those concerns were satisfied five days later, when Government demonstrated that buses and work places were cleaned to a standard “above and beyond” the requirements of the Department of Health.

But a fresh row broke out after drivers argued that they should be paid for the time off work during the initial stoppage. The BIU maintained that the stoppage was caused by health and safety concerns and was not a labour dispute.

The union said drivers had a right to withdraw labour until they were satisfied that their working environment was safe.

The Government claimed that, although drivers’ concerns were valid, they did not follow regulations laid down in 40-year-old laws on labour disputes.

Officials insisted the stoppage illegal and that drivers should not get paid.

The Government has called in private minibuses to provide a skeleton bus service since yesterday, when Lawrence Scott, the Minister of Transport, said he hoped that a settlement would be reached.

Mr Scott added: ”We anticipate that the bus service will return to the regularly scheduled service tomorrow.“

The One Bermuda Alliance yesterday urged bus drivers to return to work.

Scott Pearman, the Opposition transport spokesman, said BIU staff should get the bus service back to normal while their grievances are looked at.

Mr Pearman said: “We urgently need to resolve the transport work stoppage.

“Today is the12th day without buses on our roads, a failure amplified by additional ferry stoppages.”

Mr Pearman added: “The Opposition does not wish to add fuel to the fire.

“We have discussed the stoppage with both government and the BIU, encouraging all parties to reach a solution.

“We remain hopeful common sense will prevail.”

Mr Pearman said a referral to a labour tribunal “in theory” should get staff back to work while the case was examined.

But he added: “The BIU contests Government’s referral, contending the health and safety stoppage does not amount to a labour dispute capable of referral.”

Mr Furbert appeared to offer an olive branch yesterday.

He said: ”Let’s press the pause button and see how we can fix the family.“

Drivers walked off the job on September 17 because of fears about Covid-19.

The dispute was resolved five days later – but drivers continued industrial action after the Government said that they would not get paid for time taken off work.

BIU officials who represent bus staff were in meetings and could not be reached for comment.

Mr Pearman said he did not want to take sides in the dispute.

But he added that staff should return to work while the dispute was resolved.

He said: “Regardless of who is right, it is the Bermudian public who continue to be caught in the middle.

“Monday saw the Government hire minibuses in a contingency plan outlined to Parliament last week. The BIU responded telling government ‘let’s have a conversation’.

“Dialogue is always welcome. The One Bermuda Alliance will continue to engage with both sides to try and find a resolution, which is urgently needed.”

Mr Pearman added: “We shall see if Government’s tribunal referral brings a return of service.

“Respectfully, who was right, and whether pay is due, can and should be decided at a later date.

“We cannot have any further stoppage while the BIU debates whether the Government was right to refer to the tribunal.

“We need buses and ferries back in operation now. The public must not suffer further.”

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Published September 29, 2021 at 7:50 am (Updated September 29, 2021 at 8:55 am)

Bus dispute still on even after row referred to arbitration

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