Tension and disputes in Guadeloupe industrial relations

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Over late 2002 and early 2003, Guadeloupe - a French overseas département in the Caribbean - has seen major industrial disputes, driven by a slump in the island’s economy. The General Federation of Guadeloupe Workers (UGTG) has emerged as the most militant trade union, and elections to joint industrial tribunals held in December 2002 confirmed an increase in its support.

Over the past two years, there has been a regular drop in the number of people visiting the French Caribbean islands, especially Guadeloupe, which is an overseas département of France. Faced with direct competition from neighbouring destinations (Cuba, Dominican Republic etc) offering at least equivalent facilities and services, the French Caribbean islands have been hard pressed to maintain their market share. Between 1999 and 2002, the number of visitors plummeted from almost 1 million to under 800,000 - a drop of almost 20%. These figures reveal another shortcoming of the tourist industry in the French Caribbean islands; a failure to attract a more international clientele. Indeed, 85% of all visitors still come from France.

Air services to the French Caribbean islands have gradually been cut - by between 20% and 25% according to tourism professionals – and remaining links are structurally unprofitable. The problems facing Air Lib, one of the airlines with regular flights to the French Caribbean islands have aggravated the situation further (FR0302105N).

Accor announces gradual withdrawal

On 9 November 2002, against this backdrop of general gloom and doom in the local tourism industry, Gérard Pélisson, co-president of the Accor group, the world’s largest hotel chain, announced – in a letter to the President of France – its plans for a gradual withdrawal from the French Caribbean islands.

In his missive, Mr Pélisson cited problems such as staff attitudes to customers - which he described as aggressive - poor productivity, the general industrial relations climate and the difficulties experienced by hotel chains in obtaining a return on their investment. Guadeloupe continues to suffer from a shortage of skilled hotel labour. Despite the development of the Guadeloupe tourism industry, it has so far proved impossible to set up a hotel training school.

Difficult economic and industrial relations climate

The Guadeloupe economy faces chronic problems. The local agricultural industry, traditionally based on sugar cane and bananas, is facing problems selling products to Europe because of competition from those countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific linked to the European Union by the Lomé agreement and subsequent accords.

No industry – with the exception of sugar-cane products in the 19th century - has been able to develop on a sustainable basis in Guadeloupe. Indeed, the service industry and the public services have developed more or less artificially through the enlargement of the responsibilities of local authorities (communes, département and region) and associated organisations. The most obvious consequences of this unplanned and uncontrolled growth in public sector employment have been that central government has had to take over the running of several local authorities, prominent local elected officials have been investigated and in some cases convicted, and disputes have arisen between local government employees demanding tenure and elected officials trying to get public spending under control. In Guadeloupe, in excess of 24 % of the working population is unemployed while the number of recipients of the 'minimum integration income' (Revenu minimum d'insertion, RMI) benefit is alarming (25,492 out of a total population of 422,500). The number of insecure jobs – both official and unofficial – is on the rise and the underground economy worker living from hand to mouth is now a familiar figure. Crime and violence are also on the increase.

Industrial relations conflict has increased over the past few years in Guadeloupe, both in terms of the number of disputes and number of working days lost - see the table below.

Industrial disputes in Guadeloupe, 2000-1
. 2000 2001 % increase
Number of industrial disputes 148 217 46.6%
Number of working days lost 1,119 1,964 75.5%

Source : Préfecture of Guadeloupe

The General Federation of Guadeloupe Workers (Union Générale des Travailleurs de Guadeloupe, UGTG), which is closely allied to pro-independence political organisations, has emerged as the most militant trade union in disputes.

Disputes in late 2002 and industrial tribunal elections

In late 2002, the UGTG union was involved in a dispute, lasting several months, with a company managing the Texaco petrol distribution network in Guadeloupe, over the terms and conditions for the takeover of a Texaco petrol station. A few days after Accor announced its intention to pull out of Guadeloupe and in the face of Texaco’s refusal to negotiate, UGTG issued a 'general strike call', which paralysed the island’s petrol distribution system. Violent clashes with law and order forces at a refinery depot led to the militant pro-independence activist, Gabriel Bourguignon, being jailed. This led to further outbreaks of violence on the island. The hard-line action helped to strengthen UGTG and to raise its profile in the press.

The outcome of the elections among employees of representatives on France's joint industrial tribunal s (conseils de prud'hommes) held on 11 December 2002 (FR0301107F) underscored the growing influence of UGTG in Guadeloupe. The turn-out in these elections was lower than in continental France (at 28 %). Nevertheless, UGTG succeeded in building on its 1997 election success. The union won 21 out of a possible 48 seats, up from 19 in 1997. It did best in Pointe-à-Pitre, the major centre of employment on the island, and scored especially highly in those sectors which have experienced major disputes over the past three or four years. These included the wholesale and retail sector in Pointe-à-Pitre, non civil-servant local authority officials and workers at service stations and in the Moule region sugar cane and related products industry.

The Guadeloupe General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail de Guadeloupe, CGTG) came second in the election with 15 seats. This trade union is particularly well represented among agricultural workers on banana plantations in the Basse-Terre area.

Latest developments

The public authorities and the French government, aware of the developing crisis, have taken the decision to provide additional resources and have begun a process of consultations with local officials with a view to developing new steering legislation for French overseas départements or to overhauling their institutions, mainly through local discussion fora made up of trade unions, employers’ organisations and the local voluntary sector.

Despite these efforts, disputes continue, mainly at the behest of the UGTG union, and particularly among municipal employees. On 14 February 2003, between 3,000 and 6,000 (according to police and organiser figures) people answered a call from eight trade unions to take part in a demonstration organised by UGTG and CGTG in the streets of Pointe-à-Pitre, denouncing the rise in insecure employment. The Guadeloupe United Workers’ Centre (Centrale des travailleurs unis de la Guadeloupe, CTU), affiliated to the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), refused to take part in this action as a protest at alleged assaults and attacks by UGTG on its members.

Commentary

France's overseas départements have been grappling for some time with weak economies, high unemployment and poor ties to neighbouring economies. Guadeloupe has not escaped these wide-ranging problems. However, the industrial relations climate in Guadeloupe, with its brutal colonial history and vivid memory of the anti-slavery struggle, stands out for its high level of disputes.

In spite of the inconvenience caused to the people of Guadeloupe by the major industrial action and demonstrations that have taken place over the past few months, most workers support them, a fact borne out by the outcome of the industrial tribunal elections. The General Federation of Guadeloupe Workers has – based on a platform which is both industrial relations and political in nature - been more successful than any other trade union in capitalising on the sensitivities of a major section of the working population.

Over and above the need to improve the local economic situation, there is a need to foster a move to social dialogue and calmer but active participation in public life. (Maurice Braud, IRES)

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