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By Floyd French

Observer Reporter

(Basseterre, St. Kitts) – One year has passed since Ms. Denise Stevens, a mother of five and employee at the St. Kitts Marriott, injured her back after a fall at her workplace.  Ms. Stevens is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Marriott for compensation she feels is owed to her.

The Marriott did not respond to numerous requests for comments on this story.

President of the St. Kitts-Nevis Trades and Labour Union, Mr. Clifford Thomas, said that the accident might not have happened had the workers been members of a union.

The structure of unions would have allowed for shop stewards to be appointed and occupational health and safety issues would have formed part of collective bargaining agreements, he said.

“The presence of a union there would have led to a safety and health committee to be put in place which would have place the emphasis on prevention, so there may not really have been a need to address the injury,” Thomas said.

In an interview, Ms. Stevens said other members of the kitchen staff had fallen as a result of the slippery condition of the floor.  At the time of her fall – on March 20, 2007 – she was wearing the prescribed uniform including the shoes which were slip resistant, she said.

The fall has resulted in dislocated discs in her back and partial paralysis.

The work of a union goes beyond the bread and butter issue of pay increases and this fact is one Mr. Thomas stress.

“Workers would be sensitised that they should not do anything to cause spills, to do everything to avoid spills.”

“The mental set of workers which may well be that because wages are still lagging behind prices, they are reluctant to expend money, especially in relation to union fees, which is very small in our context,” he added.

It takes an initial, one time only, membership fee of $7 and $2 per week subscription to be an active member of the St. Kitts- Nevis Trades and Labour Union.  Mr. Thomas, who served on the Labour Commission from 1995-2007, said in the absence of collective bargaining agreement, the workers claim should go to Social Security for injury benefit.  Social Security would then investigate that claim and determine whether to award injury benefit and the length of time that benefit should be paid.

Ms. Stevens has exhausted all that she is entitled to under injury benefits at Social Security.  She is currently on invalidity benefits for 26 weeks. When that period is over, she would be entitled to disability benefits at a reduced amount of money.

Ms. Stevens, whose children range in age from nine to 17, is now desperate for a greater source of income to support her family and continue her medical treatment in the hope of regaining greater mobility and financial independence.  Most of her support comes from family and friends who help with whatever little they can.

She feels jaded by the Marriott.  She cannot even claim benefits under an insurance plan for Marriott employees.  According to Ms. Stevens, the insurance policy does not cover for injury at the workplace.

“Workers compensation is no longer a direct responsibility of the employer, through the Social Security Act workers compensation is now paid by Social Security. However, in my view, that does not relieve the employer entirely,” said Mr. Thomas.  He said it is now up to the worker to take legal action against the employer.

Had workers been unionised, Mr. Thomas believes, collective bargaining would have allowed for the best insurance coverage for the workers.

Ms. Stevens has begun legal action against Marriott, and her lawyer has even forwarded copies of communication between himself and Marriott’s local lawyers to Marriott’s head office in Washington D.C.  Ms. Stevens is now frustrated from the delay and lack of concern on Marriott’s part and has decided to take her case to the people in the court of public opinion.

Meanwhile, Mr. Thomas said his union had been weakened back in 1980’s by the Government at that time.  He said while individual workers can join a union and have the union intervene on that worker’s behalf, his union, due to lack of funds, cannot offer everyone financial assistance as they await a favourable outcome.  In extreme circumstances the Union would find a way to assist the worker, he said.

When asked what resolution she would like to have, Ms. Stevens said her mobility and joked about not being able to have sexual intimacy with her boyfriend.  But she became serious about the prospect of not regaining full mobility and she wished for some means of future financial security and providing for her family.

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