On the march: members of the Bermuda Union of Teachers take part in the Labour Day march (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Labour leaders yesterday hailed the trailblazing work of the late Ottiwell Simmons, but said more work must be done to address the rising cost of living.

Addressing a crowd of people outside the Bermuda Industrial Union headquarters before the annual Labour Day March, Chris Furbert, BIU president, said action should be taken to reduce the cost of healthcare for employees and employers.

Members of the Bermuda Industrial Union take part in the Labour Day march (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

“This would provide immediate relief for so many workers that it will provide an increase in their disposable income,” he said. “This initiative could take place while we are considering ways to reduce Bermuda’s high cost of living.”

The union leader also reiterated his support of the redevelopment of the Fairmont Southampton, stating that he would have supported it whatever political party was at the helm.

“People are looking for jobs,” he said. “That is the largest hotel in this country. As I told the former minister of finance, that hotel is too big to fail.”

Mr Furbert also led tributes to Mr Simmons, a former union leader who championed the creation of a public holiday to celebrate labour in Bermuda.

He said that Mr Simmons had called for the holiday to be celebrated on May 1 to fall in line with International Workers Day but it was established in September after businesses complained about having two public holidays in May.

“Brother Ottie, with the support of the membership, made a decision after the general strike in 1981 that in May of 1982 we were going to take a public holiday, paid or unpaid,” Mr Furbert said.

“There was no need to take a public holiday with no pay in May as Eugene Cox, the former PLP shadow minister of labour, tabled a Bill that went through the House of Assembly that granted the first Monday of September would be Labour Day, a victory for Brother Ottie and the BIU.

“The Bermuda Trade Union Congress and the BIU for years have been lobbying successive governments to change September Labour Day to May in line with International Workers Day. To date, we have not been successful.”

Mr Furbert added that there were a number of workers in unionised and non-unionised work places who took the holiday for granted as “just another public holiday”.

Armell Thomas, head of the Bermuda Public Services Union, also noted the challenges faced by everyday Bermudians because of the high cost of living, including healthcare.

“Today we stand at a critical juncture where the need for progress and worker’s protections is of paramount importance,” he said.

“Equal access to affordable healthcare must be the number one priority of this government. It is long overdue with many worker’s families now at a crisis point.”

He said the introduction of unemployment insurance should also be given “priority status” for the Government and employers to provide a safety net in times of economic uncertainty.

“Our island’s economy must be protected against the rising tide of inflation that threatens worker’s livelihoods,” Mr Thomas said.

“A sustainable cost of living ensures that hard-working individuals and families can afford the necessities that allow them to thrive.”

David Burt paid tribute to the sacrifices and courage of those who led Bermuda’s labour movements and fought for the rights of workers.

The Premier said: “They organised at the Naval Dockyard in the 1940s; Belco in the 1960s; and across the island in the general strike of 1981,” he said.

“Each time they put down their comforts and set safety aside to demand more from those in power. More protection for workers, better working conditions and fairer pay.

“They stood united in solidarity and laid the foundation for the continual fight for better and fairer Bermuda, not just for Black Bermudians, White Bermudians or Portuguese Bermudians, but all Bermudians.

“They built this island that we know and love today.”

He added that the Progressive Labour Party had worked closely with the island’s unions to help create a more equitable Bermuda, noting the Government’s work to update labour legislation, reduce payroll taxes and create a minimum wage.

“We know that there is more work to be done to advance workers rights and reducing the cost of living and we will continue to stand in solidarity with our trade unions as your PLP Government implements reforms to make Bermuda a fairer society for all Bermudians,” Mr Burt said.

Jarion Richardson, the Opposition leader, said that the rights enjoyed by workers today were the result of hard work and sacrifice by those who came before us.

“It is unfathomable how many people put in so much effort,” he said.

“When they launched organised labour in Bermuda, it wasn’t with power points and computers, it wasn’t in air-conditioned offices. It was in living rooms, in homes, in community clubs, in sports clubs.

“It was markers and placards. It was people risking everything they had to stand up on a street corner and demand something that the powers that be could have easily quashed.”

Jason Hayward, the Minister of Economy and Labour, also noted the work carried out by the Government to benefit the island’s workers but said the work was not yet done.

“We will look to ensure equal work for equal pay is within all industries,” he said. “We will work to ensure the furtherance of a living wage for workers in Bermuda.

“We will be refining and monitoring the minimum wage that we implemented. We are also going to ensure that we put legislation in place that prevents employers from withholding tips, gratuities and service charges from employees.”

Mr Hayward said the Government wanted to increase the working population but also wanted to retain all the workers already in the workplace and address the problems that force young Bermudians to leave.

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