By Aaron Humes
BELIZE CITY, Thurs. June 12, 2014
The three major public service unions are to meet jointly and with their membership after failing to get the Government to agree to several key proposals that they want to form part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which has been under negotiations for the last five years.
Twenty-three proposals were tabled for negotiation, of which eighteen have been mutually agreed on, mainly to do with increases in allowances and benefits to workers, teachers, law enforcement personnel and senior managers in matters such as motor vehicle and transport allowance, allowances to teachers for various conditions and so on.
But the unions want complete agreement on the remaining five proposals before they sign off on the agreement, and are not pleased with being told that they must agree by next Thursday, June 19.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow, after what he called “anxious consideration,” wrote to the unions stating that he had decided not to accept the remaining proposals, chief among them a proposed health insurance scheme for teachers and public officers; restoration of lost increments as a result of a freeze by the Said Musa administration, and an increase in the limit for persons paying income tax.
One of the biggest remaining proposals is the salary adjustment. Having initially asked for 30% over three years, the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU), Public Service Union (PSU), and Association of Public Service Senior Managers (APSSM) and the Government of Belize have whittled that figure down, so that teachers and public officers, based on a special formula of 50% of gross revenue, will receive some $36 million more in salary, not including increments, for the next three years.
The figure, confirmed by Prime Minister Dean Barrow at a press conference on Wednesday in Belize City, represents no less than six per cent adjusted salary and one percent more than the initial “floor” of five per cent asked for by the unions.
But speaking earlier on Wednesday, the unions said they wanted to be absolutely sure of the final product on the adjustment and intended to meet with Financial Secretary Joseph Waight.
According to BNTU president, Luke Palacio, they are not asking for more than what the formula affords them.
PSU president, Marvin Blades, adds, however, that they do not want to be “shortchanged.”
And they will not be, said the Prime Minister, who noted that across the Caribbean, governments have either instituted wage freezes (Jamaica, St. Lucia) or downsized the public service (Barbados).
President of the APSSM, Senior Magistrate Sharon Frazer, noted that they have had their own battles with their membership over perceived betrayals of the workers’ demands, most notably the issue of a floor, and they are not naive to the “fiscal realities” of Belize in the present climate, with notable issues including the ownership of Belize Telemedia Limited and the Ships and Companies Registries to be determined in court which would potentially include compensation and affect the unions’ payments.
But they are irked by the “dismissive approach” taken in the Prime Minister’s response, Frazer said, and by a prior statement alluding to “millions of dollars” in Government’s coffers, which it was explained was referring to the Petrocaribe funds which are not available for the salary adjustment. The unions, she said, acting responsibly, were left to take the brunt of their members’ anger when they explained this to them.
Blades said that in the case of the proposed health insurance scheme, the authorities have not even given the process a chance to play out. Effectively, the proposal, expected to cost some $7 million, has been ruled out for not being financially possible at this time, though the offer is open to discuss at another time. The proposed scheme would have covered secondary and tertiary health care.
Frazer said that for some public officers, insurance is not a luxury, but a necessity, as under the law the Government is liable to take care of its employees. For instance, she notes, firefighters must be covered by insurance but are not. Public servants are also impacted by high health clinic bills which they must pay mostly on their own, even for primary care which is supposed to be covered by the Government.
Barrow stated that the scheme would conflict with the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHI) which already serves Belize City and Toledo and will soon go to Corozal.
He went on to note that a rise in the limit for persons who pay income tax would reduce the revenue from which Government pays salaries and threaten the adjustment. As for the increments, he stated that there is no evidence provided of the “gentlemen’s agreement” referred to by the unions and in any event, they are already getting enough without forcing the Government to resort to taxing the rest of the citizenry to make up for the unions’ demands.
Barrow said that while the public servants are a “critical” part of the society, they are not alone, and the Government must balance what they ask for with the needs of the greater society.
The unions, meanwhile, note that they have presented their own solutions to issues with collection of taxes and revenue to help the Government become fiscally stable.
But in the circumstances, Barrow concluded, the deal the unions have is the best they can get and it is time for the negotiations between the two sides to end.
The unions do not agree, and will meet with their members to determine their next step.