The National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), currently involved in drawn-out and contentious pay talks with the Freundel Stuart administration, late last week levelled a serious charge against Government which merits official clarification. The allegation has the potential to further undermine support and confidence in the administration’s strategy for economic recovery.
Speaking at the opening of the NUPW’s 73rd annual conference last Thursday evening, General Secretary Roslyn Smith claimed that after sending home 3,000 public sector workers three years ago as part of efforts to reduce the fiscal deficit through spending cuts, Government subsequently had “gradually and discretely” added over 2,500 persons to the payroll through new hirings.
The union leader’s claim raises questions as to whether it was necessary to have sent home persons in the first place. Smith said Barbadians were being made “perpetual pawns, scapegoats and play things” of the country’s political leaders. And underscoring the seriousness of the allegation is the fact that it was made by the chief executive of the island’s largest public sector union, which, given its network within Government, should be in a position to know.
If new hirings were indeed done on the scale reported by Smith, it also raises legitimate questions about the seriousness of Government when it took the action in the first place.
The 2014 cuts were supposed to have generated savings of $143 million.
Hence, there are several pertinent questions which can be raised. For example, why were these hirings done? Who approved them? At what level were these hirings done? Which departments were involved?
Speaking to this newspaper on condition of anonymity last Friday, a senior Government official rubbished the NUPW leader’s claim, saying the overall public sector wage bill was lower today than in 2013. The official also said only 1,800 workers had actually been sent home, in contrast with the 3,000 stated by the union, and that 1,800 persons had retired over the last three years, a move that would have obviously resulted in additional payroll savings.
However, considering that the official did not wish to be publicly identified, it might be prudent for the Ministry of the Civil Service to issue a formal statement on the issue, for the record, and for the purpose of public clarification.
An allegation which was rife when the retrenchments were carried out was that many Opposition Barbados Labour Party supporters were involved. Not surprisingly, the talk of new hirings has triggered allegations that the beneficiaries were mainly supporters of the ruling Democratic Labour Party (DLP).
Suffice it to say, relations between the NUPW and the incumbent DLP have not been at their best in recent years. Tensions were further exacerbated by the union’s decision to seek a 23 per cent pay increase for its members who, in support of Government’s economic recovery efforts, had agreed to a freeze in their salaries for the past eight years. Government maintains that the country cannot afford an increase of this magnitude as it would further deteriorate the public finances which remain under pressure. While Smith signalled a willingness to reconsider the 23 per cent in a spirit of compromise, the union, however, is not letting up on its position that its members deserve a pay increase instead of nothing at all.
It can be argued that Government has partially contributed to the union’s stance by its recent decision to restore the ten per cent salary cut which ministers and parliamentarians had agreed to, in support of the economic recovery effort.
In politics, timing is of the essence. On this particular issue, it can be said that the timing of Government’s move was bad, given the prevailing economic climate where persons are being asked to hold strain. It also sent the wrong message, given the considerable opposition which Barbadians generally have voiced.
Referring to the restoration of the ten per cent, Smith asked last Thursday night: “Didn’t Government believe in the fairness and strength of restoring their ten per cent pay?”
Government now finds itself caught between a rock and hard place in urging restraint when the perception exists that it did not show restraint in restoring the ten per cent. It may therefore have little choice in the circumstance but to compromise, seeing that industrial action is an option which the union has already indicated it is prepared to exercise.
It is important that cool heads prevail so that whatever decision is finally arrived at, is in the national interest and avoids aggravation of the economic situation which, in some way will hurt everyone, whether directly or indirectly.