On Saturday, July 1, the very day the Freundel Stuart administration’s most burdensome austerity measures took effect, an estimated 100, 000 people marched through the streets of London and gathered in a packed Parliament Square to send a strong message to British prime minister Theresa May and her minority conservative government: they had enough of austerity.
Using the hashtag #notonedaymore to publicize the event which was organized by a group calling itself the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, and which had strong support from trade unions and the Labour Party, the demonstrators wanted to make it clear they were not willing to face another day of austerity.
The labour movement here, it would seem, is taking a similar path to the anti-austerity movement that is building in the United Kingdom. The top trade unions, the Barbados Workers’ Union, the National Union of Public Workers, the Barbados Union of Teachers and the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union yesterday announced plans for a march on Parliament next Tuesday in a show of opposition to the National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL), which climbed from two per cent when it was introduced last September, to ten per cent last week.
We can safely say that this march will not mirror the London protest in terms of the size of the crowd, but it is left to be seen how many protestors it will attract and what message they plan to transmit.
Virtually everyone from the business community and the labour movement to ordinary Barbadians have cried that the NSRL will do more damage than good, with some describing it as oppressive, and others predicting job cuts and business closures.
However, as he aims to raise $542 million in taxes to help close a gaping fiscal deficit, Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) Government say they have little to no choice.
Mr Stuart yesterday used the age old, “it is better to have a job and face high price rises than not to have a job and face the same high prices” to defend the tax.
Even as he said he understood the outcry, he said Barbadians should ride it out.
What the Prime Minister failed to say, however, was how long this ride will continue, for we have been riding out every tax rise, every new tax, every price increase, every austerity measure that has been imposed for nearly a decade now, all for the sake of country.
And as our spending power diminishes further, we see no end to the misery.
Our administration continues to persist with the austerity route, despite evidence that it has failed.
A number of countries took a similar route after the global economic turmoil intensified in 2010, as austerians promoted fiscal probity through the slashing government spending and cutting of deficits as a means to drive recovery.
They dismissed concerns that such austerity in economies that are struggling would make the situation worse and delay recovery.
We saw how this approach worked in Greece and we most definitely know how well it has worked here as we wait and wait for the recovery and for confidence to return.
In 2012, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – which over the years has demonstrated in the most oppressive ways how much it loves austerity – admitted that these measures did more harm than good.
In its World Economic Outlook, its chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, said efforts among wealthy countries to shrink their deficits through tax hikes and spending cuts had been causing far more economic damage than experts had assumed.
On the other hand, Blanchard said countries that engaged in stimulus, such as Germany and Austria, did better than expected.
Maybe it is time our administration rethinks its strategies and finds another way. And for those who ask what will it do, let us not forget they were elected to find solution, to help make our lives better, not to make excuses and make things worse for us.
Maybe it is time to begin investing in infrastructure, in people, in education, in technology. It is time to put people to work again so they can spend again and lift the economy again.
Since 2010, the British government has maintained a one per cent cap on pay rises for public servants. Last year, the administration voted to keep the cap until 2020, even as the parliamentarians gave themselves a ten per cent pay rise.
Similarly, Government workers here have not had a pay rise in nine years, and we are all aware of the outrage after our parliamentarians restored the ten per cent that had been cut from their salaries.
Britons are now saying they have had enough, and trade unions, the opposition and even some government MPs are saying it is time to abandon the cap, and end the austerity programme.
The first signs that the British population was growing tired of austerity came in the June 8 general election when the conservatives received a shock by losing seats and failing to win the government, while Jeremy Corbin and his Labour Party, with a strong anti-austerity message, performed much better than predicted.
Since the election the government’s popularity has continued to plummet, while the opposition continues to gain support.
He may not admit it publicly, but Mr Stuart already knows what Barbadians think of the DLP administration, as the most recent opinion poll showed.
He must now accept that people want to live with dignity, not just exist in poverty, as a placard stated during a demonstration in the UK last year by health services workers, including doctors, against the one per cent pay rise.
Mr Stuart must tell Barbadians how long we must continue to ride it out.