The National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) and the country’s civil servants will be forgiven if they go to bed tonight believing in Christmas miracles.
Having gone a decade without a pay rise, and having been told by all and sundry in the Freundel Stuart administration that Government simply could not afford it, the NUPW today got an offer from the Ministry of the Civil Service, as the two sides resumed protracted negotiations.
It did not come entirely as a surprise to Akanni McDowall, the union’s president, who predicted last week that an offer would be placed on the table.
His rationale was that since the union had made it clear to the ministry that it should not come calling unless Government was prepared to move from its position of a zero per cent increase, the fact that the ministry summoned the talks could only mean there was movement.
A Government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the details had not yet been shared with members of the union, told Barbados TODAY the offer was for a coping subsidy.
The NUPW, which has demanded a 23 per cent pay rise, has maintained all along that Government can afford a wage hike, and it dug in its heels even further following the decision by legislators of the ruling Democratic Labour Party to restore the ten per cent that was cut from their salaries and that of senior public servants in 2014 during the height of austerity.
However, a procession of Government spokesmen, including Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, continued to maintain that any demand for an increase is unreasonable, and some have even suggested that the union was putting jobs at risk by asking for a pay rise.
But they were not the only ones questioning the NUPW, as well as the Barbados Workers Union, which itself has asked for a 15 per cent hike.
Former Central Bank of Barbados economist Carlos Forte, a senior economist at the Ontario Ministry of Finance, told Barbados TODAY in September that it would be “reckless” for Government to increase the wages and salaries of public servants at this time, and that both unions were “either misguided, disingenuous or unrealistic” with their demands.
Prime Minister Freundel Stuart had said previously that the unions should give the burdensome National Social Responsibility Levy (NSRL) a chance to work. He had promised to consider a pay rise or a coping subsidy – something all the trade unions had been requesting in the wake of the $542 million austerity Budget – if a review of the tax at the end of September had revealed a degree of success.
Does the fact that the administration is offering to pay the subsidy mean the Prime Minister is satisfied with the performance of the NSRL, which Sinckler said had raised $50 million between July 1 and September 30, but which the Ministry of Finance later admitted was not performing as anticipated?
But, what if the Ministry of Finance is right and the tax is not performing as well as Government had hoped? Where, then, will the money come from? Will the administration do what Minister of Commerce Donville Inniss and former Central Bank governor Dr DeLisle Worrell recommended and slash the public service even further? Is Government reckless, as Mr Forte suggested?
The funds must come from somewhere, and it is unlikely that Christmas miracles extend this far. Or maybe they do.
There are some who will say that Government’s pre-Christmas offer has the reek of camembert that has been left outside of the refrigerator for much too long past Christmas dinner.
Opponents of the administration will suggest that the smell of election gimmickry associated with it is far more nauseating than the current stench along the south coast.
Mr McDowall might beg to disagree, and will likely argue that it is the union’s relentless offensive that has yielded results at last.
This, however, will not prevent those with curious minds, as well as conspiracy theorists, from asking, why now? Why wasn’t it done in October after Mr Sinckler had boasted about the NSRL’s intake? Why wasn’t it done when the administration restored the ten per cent? Why wait until a general election is round the corner?
These are legitimate questions that an unpopular administration, which will soon face voters, must answer.
Of course, critics will insist that this administration has been decaying for quite some time, and that today’s offer is an attempt to stem the rot.
Needless to say, decay is a fact of power, as those in leadership run out of ideas and voters become fed up of things such as crippling taxes, broken promises and persistent sewage leaks.
All of these issues and more will weigh on people’s minds come the general election, due by the middle of next year. But so too, will whatever Christmas treats that public servants receive.
Whether or not the two are linked, the administration will never admit it, and its opponents will never stop believing it.
Either way, no one can blame public servants if they now come to believe in Christmas miracles. Do you?