By Caribbean News Now contributor
CASTRIES, St Lucia -- In what has been described as the latest unforced error by newly appointed leader of the parliamentary opposition in Saint Lucia, Dr Gale Rigobert, office staff have been summarily dismissed and their personal possessions thrown away, all amid accusations of tampering with computers.
Dr Gale Rigobert
Rigobert became opposition leader on Saturday, following the controversial ouster of Stephenson King, who was also replaced last year as political leader of the opposition United Workers Party (UWP) by Allen Chastanet. However, because Chastanet has so far failed to win a seat in parliament, King continued as leader of the parliamentary opposition until he was recently voted out by a majority of elected opposition members in favour of Rigobert.
Over the weekend, Rigobert apparently took possession of the opposition leader’s office in Castries, changing the locks and disposing of the office staff’s personal possessions found there.
On Monday morning, staff found themselves locked out of the office and had to wait outside for some 90 minutes until Rigobert appeared at 10 am.
According to Rigobert, the decision to change the locks to the leader of the opposition’s office was taken because of security concerns. She claimed to have found evidence suggesting computers had been tampered with.
“There were some curious discoveries as if to suggest the office had been tampered with,” she told local media.
In addition, she said, the telephone lines were down, which raised tremendous curiosity as to why things were not as they should have been.
Staff members expressed concern on Monday about their future employment but Rigobert reminded them that the policy is that their recruitment becomes redundant if the leader of the opposition demits office or is otherwise terminated.
It is, she said, therefore her prerogative as the leader of the opposition to determine her staff.
“The staff has already determined for themselves that it would be an untenable situation,” Rigobert said.
She acknowledged that there is some bitterness within the UWP as a result of the recent developments but she is confident that the dust will settle sooner rather than later.
Former opposition leader Stephenson King described the recent events as “very disturbing.”
While he acknowledged that the new opposition leader may wish to change staff, he said the manner in which it was done was disheartening.
“You wouldn’t believe that it was the same party treating its own members in the manner it was done,” King said, referring to Saturday’s events at the opposition leader’s office as a “cleansing”.
King also rejected Rigobert’s allegations of foul play in tampering with equipment at the office.
“What we saw there this morning has nothing to do with foul play. It was a deliberate act on the part of those persons who were involved in the cleaning of the office on Saturday to install padlocks to prevent the staff from accessing the office and the entire staff was dismissed by the leader of the opposition,” he said.
King said it almost feels like there has been a change from one party to the next and a total cleansing of the environment within which the former administration worked.
“This is an internal matter, a matter to do with the United Workers Party in which a new leader of the opposition has been appointed and, as far as I’m concerned, there is need for some good sense to prevail; for a spirit of seniority to exist and to handle the situation with a lot more tender care. The manner in which it was done I for a moment felt that I was dealing with a different organisation and not the United Workers Party. This is not the spirit of the United Workers Party,” he said.
Prisca Charles, who until last week was employed in the opposition leader’s office, described the situation on Monday morning.
“When I came in, there was a lock on the door … so we all were outside waiting from 8:30. When it was 10 o’clock, Ms Rigobert came in ... she called us to a meeting, informing us that our services were no longer required,” Charles said.
However, Charles said, when the staff were let into the office they found that everything had been cleared out and none of their personal items remained.
“Ms Rigobert could not even tell us where our items were but she is willing to pay us for them… whatever is lost,” she said.
“The way this thing was going on is not right. We are all UWPs and if Ms Rigobert wanted to dismiss us she could have done that differently. We are no criminals… she is saying that information was taken from the computers and that is a lie, that is a cover-up,” Charles said.
Charles pointed out that the UWP has been campaigning against victimisation in the workplace in Saint Lucia and that is exactly what was done to them by the new opposition leader.
Former UWP member and now political leader of the Lucian People’s Movement (LPM), Therold Prudent, also weighed in on the situation, saying that in order to bring change to the opposition party there must be new blood and not failed politicians at the helm.
Prudent said he was happy that he is no longer a part of the UWP and he was also highly critical of the UWP’s new political leader Allen Chastanet and the party’s new executive, saying that the LPM raises better issues with more substance than the UWP.
The new UWP leaders, Prudent said, have brought about infighting and opportunistic desires.
“This is what has happened to the UWP and for persons like me, I am very, very happy that I am not a part of this organisation anymore,” he said.
Prudent said that the UWP should revamp the executive or dissolve the party, saying it is clear that there is a problem with UWP leader Allen Chastanet and his new team.
“Saint Lucians have to ask themselves whether they really want to bring those people back to serve in any future government. You would believe that, if you are going to change the head of your party, you are also going to introduce new blood and not make failed politicians the nucleus of your leadership team moving forward,” he said.
Prudent extended an invitation to former UWP leader Stephenson King and other progressive members of the party to join forces with him.
Another senior LPM member, Melanius Alphonse, said that the UWP lacks cohesion and mature leadership, and needs direction.
“The UWP is a party at war with itself, the women of Saint Lucia and the voters of the country,” he said.
The firing of the four UWP employees of the opposition leader’s office in the manner in which it was done sends a strong signal of mistrust within the party and the growing factions that are now very visible, Alphonse continued.
“It is clear that the UWP leadership does not respect Stephenson King and has drawn the conclusion that they have no use for him,” he said.
“While it is the prerogative of the opposition leader to select her staff, she must nevertheless operate within the laws of Saint Lucia, as well as within the bounds of decency,” Alphonse said.
“Also, it is about time that clever minds make a distinction between the official leader of the opposition, a constitutional position financed with state funds, versus that of a political party,” he added.
Local educator and trade unionist Virginia Albert Poyotte expressed shock at the manner in which employees were dismissed by the newly appointed leader of the opposition, saying that she is even more dismayed that Rigobert, being a woman, is at the centre of the poor treatment of workers.
“What saddens me even more is that we are speaking of a woman who has taken that leadership position and she is one that a lot of women are expected to look up to for support, especially in the political arena,” Poyotte said.
She also expressed concern that the new leadership of the UWP was using women in a subtle way in the name of leadership to carry out the wishes of those who do not want to do them openly.
The ruling St Lucia Labour Party (SLP) also joined the fray, referring in a press statement to what it described as Rigobert’s unceremonious -- and perhaps unlawful – dismissal of employees at the office of the leader of the opposition.
“The SLP believes that Dr Rigobert should pay close attention to the phrase ‘pathological liar’ used … by outgoing opposition leader Stephenson King in expressing his views on the excuses provided for the dismissal of employees at the office of leader of the opposition,” the statement read.