Former Prime Minister Owen Arthur said there was a big difference between the 15 to 23 per cent pay hikes that trade unions here have been demanding, and the recent restoration of the ten per cent that was cut from the salaries of parliamentarians and other senior Government officials.
Arthur has rejected out of hand, recent attempts by the Mia Mottley-led Barbados Labour Party (BLP) to link the two issues, saying it was nothing more than “public relations grandstanding” on the part of the main Opposition.
Late last month the BLP walked out of Parliament after Government tabled a resolution to restore the amount given up by the politicians back in 2014 at the height of austerity, insisting they would not accept any restoration until public servants, who have been waiting for over six years for an increase, were granted a pay rise.
In tabling the resolution, Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler was careful to point out it was not a salary increase, but a case of Government honouring its promise to restore the ten per cent, which was initially due to be repaid at the end of 19 months.
At the time Sinckler had also said the pay cut, which was originally due to end by March 31, 2015, had been extended for an additional year.
In breaking his silence on the matter, Arthur was critical of the stance taken by the party and the MPs he once led.
The independent Member of Parliament for St Peter, who quit the BLP back in 2014, argued that it was one thing for trade unions to demand a pay hike at the height of financial difficulty and quite another to give back to politicians that which they agreed to give up during a period of austerity.
“The cut in the politicians salary by ten per cent was intended as a means of showing that politicians would, for a temporary period, be prepared to carry the sacrifice that goes beyond that which was asked of the rest of the society. The politicians were not carved out and treated separately. And it was always intended to be a 19 month period, it went past the 19 months and all that is happening is, they are not getting an increase, it is that the period of sacrifice has come to an end and you are restoring it,” he told Barbados TODAY.
Arthur also argued that had the politicians been protected from the austerity measures which the rest of the society was subjected to, the restoration would have been wrong.
However, he pointed out, on top of the ten per cent pay cut, they were faced with the same taxes and other harsh provisions that characterized the Freundel Stuart administration’s homegrown fiscal adjustment programme.
The former prime minister was also adamant that people’s wages should not be tinkered with since it could frustrate their ability to honour their commitments. In fact, he said this was one of the main reasons he had deemed it necessary to restore the eight per cent that was taken from the salaries of public servants back in early 1990s.
“When I became the Prime Minister I was so conscious that there were so many people in Barbados whose personal circumstances had been catspraddled by an eight per cent cut that I said as soon as we can restore we should, because people cannot honour their obligations, especially their mortgages.
“And even though we were not the people to implement the eight per cent pay cut, I felt that it was necessary to restore that trust of bond between the Government and the governed, and that it be restored as fast as possible, so that people could get on with sustainable livelihoods,” he said, while accusing the BLP of “public relations grandstanding” over a mere “gesture” on the part of politicians that was never intended to solve the country’s financial problems.
While refusing to go into details on his current pay pack, the former three-term prime minister, who is entitled to a pension that is two-thirds of that salary, stressed that even for politicians, “a ten per cent cut in salary on top of the other adjustments that you have to make is very, very tough, especially since people enter contracts based upon their perception of their income and that is what you are disrupting”.
Asked if he did not feel the timing was bad given the country’s ongoing economic challenges, Arthur said: “If it had not been said upfront that it would be for a temporary period, then the timing would be bad; but it was made clear from the very outset that this was temporary.”
As for the current demands by the National Union of Public Workers and its sister union, the Barbados Workers Union, for an across-the-board pay hike for public servants, the former minister of finance suggested that it would be unwise for Government to give in to those demands at this time.
“The people who are proposing those wage increases would have to show that they know where the increased revenue is going to come from to make sure that those wage increases don’t worsen an already precarious fiscal position,” he said.
“I am prepared to yield to better informed and wiser heads [but] to call for a 20 per cent wage increase when you already have a massive fiscal deficit is to tell me that a 20 per cent increase is not going to make the fiscal situation any worse. And if they have that information they should present it to the public,” he added.