Friday’s budget reading will be merely a draft that is open to be adjusted before its debate and finalization later this month. This is the window that the unions and the Government of Belize are currently working within as they continue to negotiate a salary cut, security provisions, and other measures aimed at closing the fiscal deficit currently being faced. The Government of Belize has been quiet compared to the union leaders who have been making their media rounds since February ten when the consultations began. Fast forward to today, and the unions have refused to agree to a ten-percent salary cut and the government is saying there is no other way. To sweeten the pot, the Government has listed a fifteen-point paper to the unions committing to undertake several actions including talks with the Central Bank of Belize to extend the moratoriums for public officers and teachers as well as cutting the ministers’ salaries by fifteen percent and some allowances by fifty percent. Today, the union leaders for the PSU, BNTU and the APSSM appeared on The Morning Show to say that the ball is in the Government’s side of the court. The matter was discussed in Cabinet yesterday and according to reports, the government is not open to further negotiations and the cut will proceed. Basically, the only thing the unions need to decide at this point is whether the cut will be across the board or on a tier basis. A very brief letter was sent to the unions late last night stating, quote, “By way of update, I confirm that, given the unsustainable fiscal position, Cabinet decided that it must proceed to make material fiscal adjustments. For the upcoming 2021/2022 fiscal year, this will include salary adjustments and an increment freeze with a view to yield reduction in expenditures of sixty million dollars and twenty million dollars respectively. Cabinet is partial to a tiered approach that places less burden on those earning less and more burden on those earning more, but it nevertheless welcomes the unions’ recommendations on how the above-mentioned targets on salary adjustments may be achieved.” End of quote. President of the APSSM, Sharon Frazer spoke on her union members’ resounding vote against the salary cut as well the recommended cost-saving measures they had presented.
Sharon Frazer, President, APSSM: “Responsibly it isn’t that we can go and say “Yes just go ahead.” without checking with the people who we represent and the people who we represent have basically said no we can’t afford it. We’re talking about people who are living just above the poverty level in case people don’t realize that. Maybe it is they say we have made no sacrifices but that is not true. But there are a number of things that was addressed and some of the biggest item of course is the ten percent cut and the fact that we public officers and teachers have to find eighty million dollars worth of savings in that hundred and eighty dollar deficit that the government wants to bridge. I think that, and people might not agree with me, but I think it’s unfair for the limited time that we were given to find eighty million dollars worth of savings. It’s not that we’re not trying and it’s not that we have not made recommendations because over the years there’ve been cost saving committee and there has been a revenue enhancement committee, those came out of the union they were recommendations from the union in which we were allowed to go in and I say we because I sat as a part of the Revenue Enhancement Committee where we would have gone into revenue collection departments looked at where the holes are, recommended how those holes could have been plugged up and I will tell you I don’t know if any of those measures have been taken. As far as they cost savings we also participated in the cost savings we also participated in the cost saving and we made several recommendations like rental of office space, vehicle use, there are lots of things even as it relates to making ads on the media we had addressed in our cost savings. In one of our reports it was showing that one media house got far more than others and we highlighted all of these things to government. Maybe it is our fault that we did not publicize some of the things that we were doing so that the public could have gotten a true picture of the role that the unions have been playing over the years. We’re not only just getting up now, we’ve been up and despite the fact they keep on saying “Oh the union is sleeping.” that is not true.”
President of the PSU Gerald Henry has made it clear that strike action is imminent as this is what the membership has been calling for if the government proceeds with the salary cuts.
Gerald Henry, President, Public Service Union: “The membership has been requesting strike action for quite some time now. If this proceeds the way it is going I can definitely tell you that there will be industrial action coming, that has been mandated by the membership. We are of course myself and Sister Frazer and all the other leaders of the unions have that directive from our membership to proceed with industrial action and so in terms of the extent because as you all know strike is the ultimate industrial action whether we are going to reach there before something gives we don’t know. It’s all in the government’s court, the ball is in their court and they need to make the right decisions based on like I said a nationalistic approach as opposed to whatever other approach they may be using at this time and that is just where we are.”
As for the fifteen-point offering from the government, the union leaders say that they don’t trust the government. Additionally, they say that the government has proposed the fifteen points but there is no commitment to follow through.
Gerald Henry, President, Public Service Union: “There’s no commitment there. There’s no commitment and that’s the problem because we need – like I was trying to quickly say there is a trust issue in the direction of public officers towards the government and politicians. We have always been the ones who take the brunt of the blows when there is a need to do any sort of budget balancing and so on and they come to public officers. So it’s all in the language, it’s all in the actions that they are doing so we would want to see for example some of those low lying fruits be implemented first then you’d come for my increment.”
As we noted the Prime Minister will be presenting the budget at the House of Representatives meeting on Friday in Belmopan.