In a stern rebuke of the Social Partners, Minister of Commerce, International Business, Industry and Small Business Development Donville Inniss has called on Government, the labour movement and the private sector to stop quarrelling and get to work to fix the economy.
And in what appears to be a direct message to Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, Inniss said the trade unions should be engaged in a discussion on how to ensure ordinary Barbadians move “from being employees to being shareholders”.
In an address Wednesday at the 45th annual general meeting of the Barbados Institute of Management and Productivity, during which he sounded like a man with leadership ambitions putting forward his policy position, the unpredictable minister presented his vision of a “new Barbados” where high taxes were no longer, state agencies were fewer and workers were wealthier because they were also business owners.
With the Freundel Stuart administration involved in a major row with the unions and the private sector over the country’s economic direction, particularly the taxing National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL), Inniss called for a truce and for all sides to redirect their attention to finding answers to the country’s fiscal problems.
However, he made it clear that Government could not expect to grow the economy by imposing more and more taxes on Barbadians, although he suggested that the austere measures presented by Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler on May 30, which included a rise in the NSRL from two per cent to ten per cent, a two per cent tax on foreign exchange transactions and rises in the excise duty on petrol, were necessary to clear the approximately $540 million deficit.
“I, like most of my colleagues in Government, remain satisfied that additional direct or indirect taxation is not the sustainable solution to our macro-economic challenges. Such fiscal and related monetary policies can only be temporary measures designed to balance the Budget in a relatively short space of time without causing significant social dislocation,” Inniss said.
In making reference to the wages bill, Inniss hinted at public sector job cuts eventually, but said the severing of workers would have to be done on a phased basis.
“The Government wages bill can be significantly reduced next month by a significant reduction in staff compliment, but we are all aware of the social and political consequences of such an action. I have no doubt that such will occur, but perhaps more over time than in one action,” he said.
Inniss’ speech came a day after Stuart announced he would meet with the unions and the business community, who attracted an estimated 20,000 people to a march on Monday aimed at forcing the Prime Minister to hold urgent talks on ways to tackle the fiscal problems without the NSRL, which prominent businessman Ralph Bizzy Williams said is equivalent to 27 per cent Value Added Tax.
The talks, which are tentatively scheduled for August 18, will be broadcast live, the Prime Minister also revealed Tuesday.
Inniss Wednesday pictured himself meeting the trade unions in a frank discussion about the state of affairs.
He said he would talk about merging, restructuring or closing several state enterprises that were “just not socially or financially viable for society at large as currently structured and operated”. He would also discuss “as a matter of urgency [how] to move more of our citizens from being employees to being shareholders”.
“If I was afforded the opportunity to meet with the trade unions, this is what I would be discussing – not just salary increases or the NSRL. This is also how we work towards an expansion of our tax base and a reduction in taxes whilst at the same time creating intergenerational wealth. I want to see clerical officers talking about share value and dividends – the things owners talk about – not just about vacation leave, sick leave or pensions,” he stated, adding that in his picture of a “new Barbados” more time would be spent discussing dividends and less on taxes or salary adjustments.
“The new Barbados must see my generation passing real wealth onto the next generation, not just a motorcar and 4,000 sq ft of land. I know that things are rough now. None of us can deny that. I feel the pain each day. I sense the hopelessness and despair that are freely expressed these days. I know of the real challenges in meeting basic needs. I experience the challenge in finding meaningful employment among our youth,” the minister stated.