The Freundel Stuart DLP administration in Barbados has set the precedent for what may soon become the only viable option for many governments in the region, that is the retrenchment of public workers. Faced with huge debts, deficits and slow economic growth the Barbados government has earmarked 3,000 public employees to be retrenched by the end of March 2014. The process has already begun with the dismissal of over 300 workers from the National Housing Cooperation (NHC), with many more earmarked to be dismissed.
St Lucia's prime minister Hon Kenny Anthony is on record as saying that the Caribbean economics are in a very bad state, with many of the leaders in a state of denial. While many regional leaders continue to play politics with their respective economies, the Stuart government has decided to implement the necessary economic measures irrespective of the political fallout to save the island from further economic decline. Anthony on the other hand has decided to take the issue to the nation through national consultation.
Having heavily criticised the Tillman Thomas-led NDC administration for the mismanagement of the economy, prime minister Mitchell in Grenada is now faced with the possibility of having to retrench public workers. Faced with a national debt of over $2.5 billion and a monthly wage bill of 70 cents to every dollar earned, PM Mitchell’s NNP administration has decided to implement an IMF structural adjustment program (SAP).
The program was officially announced to be effective from January 1, 2014, and run for a period of three years. A letter of intent should have been signed between the IMF and the NNP administration at the end of November 2013; to date this has not been done. There seems to be a stalemate between the government and the TUC over the issue of the freezing of wages for the period under the structural adjustment program. Minister of works the Hon Gregory Bowen indicated that the unions are 90 percent in agreement with the measures that the government plans to implement, however, on a recently held radio program this was denied by the president of the Grenada Union of Teachers (GUT).
To the ordinary layman it is clear to see that the structural adjustment program is clouded in secrecy and government intends to pressure the unions to sign onto something that they are not aware of. This has created a situation of mistrust between government and the so called social partners of which the TUC is a stakeholder.
In a recent interview Prime Minister Mitchell indicated that, whether an agreement is met with the unions or not, government will go ahead and sign the letter of intent with the IMF within a few days. He further went on to state that, if the government can't generate the necessary revenues, then further austerity measures will be taken, which may include but not limited to the reduction of the income tax threshold and the retrenchment of public workers. The economic situation is so grave that, whatever the unions settle for, it is inevitable that their workers will be retrenched nonetheless.
It is no secret that the Grenadian public service is bloated. There are over 6,000 public workers and counting. Even as Dr Mitchell is calling for the nation to make shared sacrifices, his administration continues to employ party supporters and sympathizers in the public service. The purpose of employing these workers is mainly political. It is twofold. One is to have these workers replace the folks that may be retrenched and, two, provide party supporters with jobs, thereby gaining their continued allegiance to the NNP. It's all a replay of the period 1995- 2008. The only difference this time is the once nemesis of the NNP, people like Chester and Peter who lead the struggle against Mitchell and his policies are now supporters of the same policies.
The question the TUC has to ask itself is not if workers will be retrenched, but rather how many workers will the NNP retrench and how soon will the retrenchment process begin. It is alleged that the retrenchment process has already begun. However, while some workers have been issued letters of dismissal, the government continues to hire Imani workers as replacement. The TUC is in a very dicey situation. Having committed itself to the structural adjustment program in principle even before having all the relevant information of what the program entails, they have committed suicide. As elements of the program become available to them, they have he to backpedal on many issues in order to protect the short and long term interest of their membership .Today both the government and the TUC are struggling to get their footing as the country lingers further to economic collapse. The NNP administration seems to be playing games with the TUC not being open, honest and transparent on the issue.
The TUC, as part of their proposal to government, requested that there should be no retrenchment of workers. Government, while agreeing to this in principle, has not given the TUC any commitment to this effect. Government has made it clear that the success of the SAP largely depends on public workers taking a wage freeze for three years. It therefore means that, if the TUC fails to accept a wage freeze, the likelihood that the program fails is high and so, if the government is to ensure that the program has any measure of success, workers will have to be retrenched. In making such statements the prime minister is trying to put chains around the neck, hands and feet of the TUC. Threats of retrenchment and bullying seems to be the route decided on by cabinet in their negotiations with the TUC.
The TUC, however, seemingly has the advantage. Firstly, any retrenchment of workers will have severe political fallout for the NNP. Secondly, they can engage in industrial action, something the government can ill afford at this time. If this current situation is handled badly, the NNP or the TUC risk the possibility of becoming irrelevant by the end of 2014. Government may embark on a massive retrenchment of established workers replacing them with Imanis, effectively reducing the TUC membership by thousands of workers, eroding the organisation’s financial base . Alternatively, the NNP administration may face severe industrial action, with crippling effect to the already sluggish economy, pressuring the government to the point where it may have to call early elections since they would have lost the legitimacy to govern. The position of the TUC is further strengthened with the support of the main opposition NDC with its political leader the formidable Nazim Burke who is in solidarity with their cause.
Having observed and evaluated the Barbadian scenario very meticulously, the TUC should learn from their experience and prepared itself and its membership for the inevitable: the retrenchment of workers. Barbados has implemented a host of measures with the support of the IMF. Ministers took a pay cut, public workers’ salaries were slashed by 10 percent, yet in order to put its fiscal house in order the government indicated that 3,000 public workers will be retrenched by the end of March 2014.
In Grenada, even as the government struggles to pay its monthly wage bill, the opposite is true. MPs have had an 11 percent increase in their salaries, government has to pay increases to teachers and other public workers at the end of February. Unpaid claims remain a major problem as government can't afford to pay for services rendered to it by local contractors. The economy is much smaller than that of Barbados with very little economic activity.
Taking all these factors into consideration the TUC should know that, whether they agree to a wage freeze or not, their workers will be retrenched. No amount of additional taxes will have the desired effect to reduce the wage bill from 70 cents to the dollar to, say, 55 cents to the dollar except for the massive retrenchment of workers. Basic common sense will indicate this. One doesn't have to be a "rocket scientist” to understand the precarious situation the country is in. Former minister of finance Hon Nazim Burke must be credited and highly commended for ensuring that the jobs of all public workers were preserved for the four and a half years of the NDC administration. His policies made sense and he has been vindicated, giving the scope of the problem now and the incompetence of the minister of finance and his administration.
To remain relevant, the TUC must ensure that its membership remains largely intact during the period of the structural adjustment program. TUC also has to ensure that the standard of living of its membership is not eroded to the extent that moves the middle class into poverty.
While Dr Mitchell and the NNP is driven by political considerations looking at the next election cycle, the TUC trust be motivated by the economic and social interest of its membership. That is the reason why members pay their union dues for effective representation of their interest.
Governments come and go! Politicians come and go; however, the workers of the country continue to struggle elections after elections to support themselves and their families. The TUC must remain vigilant and mindful of the political philosophy of Dr Mitchell which is 'there is never permanent friends or enemies.' A friend today can become an enemy tomorrow as far as he is concerned. He operates primarily on self interest. The issues facing the workers are serious and must be treated in a professional way by the TUC. The interest of the workers of this nation must not be sacrificed for personal interest and friendship. Workers can't eat uncertainty of friendship .
As the main opposition party the NDC through its political leader and machinery must provide all the necessary moral support to workers of the country. Traditionally they are an important sector of the party's base and they should not be abandoned in their time of difficulties. In what seems as political revenge they are the ones to feel the most pressure under Mitchell's structural adjustment program. Many of them have been neglected by their union boss who is now sleeping in NNP pajamas so they will have to fight for their rights. PM Mitchell is not an individual that like to be dictated to by anyone.
The TUC need to be firm on the many issues confronting their membership. Even the prime minister appears to be willing to negotiate with the TUC in reality he would like to see the demise of all the unions in the country. He has no other choice but to negotiate with the unions out of political necessity. TUC is in a win-win position since they are the voice of labour and by extension the voice of the people. The government needs to come clean with this body or run to risk of having to vacate office. 2014 isn't the period from 1995-2008. The workers have learn from the experiences of the past. They can recall very well the comments of the prime minister when he said to them that he don't depend on his salary to survive. Well, the workers depend on their salaries to survive and they are not prepared to commit suicide .