Giving workers a piece of the ownership pie would be one route former Prime Minister Owen Arthur suggested he would take were he to return to privatization.
Arthur, under whose 14-year watch two top-performing state-owned enterprises were sold to private commercial operators in Trinidad and Tobago and Bermuda, now wants to see a “high element of worker participation” in some entities while others would be operated by the private sector.
No employee share ownership programmes featured in the privatization of state enterprises during the 1994-2008 Arthur administration.
Stopping short of saying he supported Government’s Retooling and Empowering and Retraining and Enfranchising (RE RE) programme, Arthur said while he was in
favour of handing over some services to the private sector, he believed the public sector workers should be allowed to have shares in others.
Under phases two and three of the Barbados Economic Recovery and Transformation (BERT) programme, Government is expected to, among other things, make provision for the training and retooling of some public sector workers to place them in new jobs, while others will be given the opportunity to set up their own businesses as vendors to Government.
During a question-and-answer segment of a public lecture at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill on Monday, Arthur stayed clear of identifying which agencies should be privatized, but said he believed the economic “crisis would force change”.
He recalled taking an unpopular decision to privatize the then Barbados National Bank (now Trinidadian-owned Republic Bank), saying, “I carry the political scars of privatization on my back with honour.”
Arthur also sold off the profit-making Insurance Corporation of Barbados (ICBL), now owned by Bermuda-based BF&M Limited.
In his final year in office, Arthur sounded a brief warning that Barbadian social entitlements were unsustainable, though no action was either proposed or taken. It was a theme he returned to in his presentation on Monday.
“We have reached the stage where Barbados can no longer afford to provide unlimited benefits to everybody with the Government being the sole provider. Full stop,” said Arthur.
He said any restructuring should ensure improved efficiency, explaining that one way this could be achieved was through giving employees shares in the company.
“Consider what would happen if people who work at the [Bridgetown] Port went work first of all . . . and they went work not only to earn a salary but they went work to earn a dividend because there had been a programme of privatization that told the workers at the Port we are going to engender you to become shareholders in the workplace,” he said.
“There is nothing that would generate more economic enfranchisement if the Government of Barbados would put out the entities to be run by the private sector but with a high element of worker participation. So I don’t see privatization a monolithic matter, it must also bring with it measures to increase productivity and increase economic democratization,” he added.
But public transport was not an area to be left solely to the private sector, he said, adding that the private sector already controlled about 80 per cent of the transport system.
“I feel that what we need to do is, of course, give a subsidy to a strong kind of public sector system because there is still a part of our economy that requires a transport system that the private sector is not going to provide, mainly people in the hotels and have to work late,” he said.
“The [private] transport stops working when the minibus men stop making money, but people say they have to get home. So you are really going to need still, a minimum amount of subsidization of public transport,” he added.
On education, there was no further need for Government to build more schools, he declared, but instead the state should “buy access to schools that are of a high quality (education) that is taking place in Barbados”.
Health care, he said, should be reserved for “the vulnerable (to) have access to the high-quality private facilities that it can’t provide on its own”.
Arthur said that he saw privatization “not just as a sale of government assets to the private sector, but as a principle means by which we can be able to enfranchise – that is people who don’t own now can come to own.
He suggested privatization could be the means of generating productivity and suggested the desire to hold on to state ownership of some agencies was merely sentimental.
“I feel also the notion of just hanging on to things merely because the Government says it owns them is to live in fool’s paradise,” said Arthur.
But the former prime minister and finance minister called on the private sector to play a greater role in identifying areas that they could offer some services without help from Government.
He further called on financial institutions to form alliances in order to provide funding for public sector workers who may be displaced under Government’s economic recovery programme, in order for them to start their own enterprises.