After two months of negotiations and government consultations with union membership things seem to be coming to a head. The Government has made it clear that the salary cut is unavoidable while the unions are adamant in saying no to the cut. In speaking with the union leaders this week, one of the key concerns they have is the integrity of the government when it comes to the fifteen points they have presented to the union. The fifteen points from the government were presented in writing on March thirty. They promise to assist public officers and teachers by speaking with the lending institutions to be lenient, to offer low interest mortgage rates, and to cut their working hours as well as the implementation of the Whistleblowers legislation. The points all look good on paper and could be perceived that there is good faith on the government’s side. The issue, however, is that the unions don’t believe that the government would commit to all of it. Minister Francis Fonseca, as a part of the government’s negotiating team, spoke to Love News on the unions’ skepticism.
Francis Fonseca, Minister of Education: “These things as the union leadership knows very well these didn’t fall off a tree. We arrived at these things based on two months of consultations, two months of discussions. So when we met on Easter Monday our objective, and this came from the unions, our objective was to put all of these things together and for us to have an official signing of an agreement on these matters. So we are fully committed and have always been fully committed to signing off on an agreement on these matters with the unions. It is not just talk, it is not just – if there are problems with the way things are worded or phrased we have said to the union let us work that out but as you will appreciate you know there has to be some level of trust when you are engaged in consultations or negotiations because everything can’t be accomplished. If you’re saying we will enact legislation, whistleblowers legislation, illicit enrichment legislation, asset recovery laws we have to allow for a little bit of flexibility in terms of the Attorney General’s Ministry and the work they do. So we said to them we will do these things in four to six months we will prepare a draft so you know there has to be some flexibility because that is as much as we can commit without -we want to remain honest with them. So we are committed to these things and we were prepared as I said on Monday to go there and they even said to us let’s have a printer available so we could print and sign and unfortunately they were not able to get their membership to buy in on what we believe are very reasonable and I think very important commitments that the government is making.”
In a lengthy video presentation yesterday, Prime Minister John Briceno stressed that the offerings from the Government are genuine. As a matter of fact, he says they have provided the unions with all the documentation and information they had requested. He added that the Government has been very accommodating in the hopes of reaching an agreement.
Hon. John Briceno, Prime Minister of Belize: “It is important for all of us, union members included, to know that the government has provided the unions with all information that they have requested. If they complained that information has been kept from them it is not so. Indeed our consultations have been open and transparent. Additionally, we have put forward numerous proposals in our attempt to win support of the unions. For example we proposed that the public sector workers and teachers would work four hours less per week. They in turn asked for five hours instead and we agreed. We secured the agreement of the Central Bank to extend leniency on defaulting loans until the end of 2021. Both the DFC and the National Bank have agreed to make available five million dollars in loans to public officers and teachers. We have agreed to waive stamp duty on mortgage transfers by teachers and public officers. We offered to protect the lowest income earners from zero wage adjustment. We proposed reducing further the salaries and benefits for ministers and ministers of state, representatives and CEOs. We agreed to accelerate the reform agenda including whistleblowers and unjust enrichment laws and we supported the joint government social partner monitoring committee to assess the performance of the budget every six months. In short, government made every reasonable concession to garner support of the unions.”
Yesterday the Public Service Union (PSU) conducted several polls among its membership surrounding the launch of a strike action. Reports reaching Love News are that of the one hundred and two persons in the virtual meeting, seventy-one voted to strike; one voted against and thirty members abstained. The polls continue, although some weeks ago the PSU had noted that its membership was prepared to strike. If that decision is followed through then a 21-day notice will have to be given to the government. Both Prime Minister Briceno and Francis Fonseca both remain faithful that things will work out. They did say, however, that strike or no strike, the government will ensure that the services of the public sector continue to be offered.
Francis Fonseca, Minister of Education: “We still have hope I want to make that very clear. We still have hope that good reason will prevail. Good sense will prevail. That the unions both the PSU and the Belize National Teachers Union will appreciate, their membership will appreciate, that this is where we are we have no choice. We have no choice. You know I saw a report this morning from St.Vincent where the Prime Minister gave an address and said in two months’ time we will not be in a position to pay salaries or pensions; Prime Minister Gonsalves of St.Vincent. So this is something that’s affecting people across the globe and Belize is in a particularly dangerous situation because of our public finances and so we certainly hope that our efforts to explain to the union leadership in a very frank and honest way where we are that that message is received by their membership. So we hope that there is not a strike but as the Prime Minister said in his national address that is their right if they choose to go down that path that is their right. We as a government have a duty and obligation to continue to provide services to the people of this country and we will do so. We will do so whatever is required we will do so to make sure that the private sector keeps functioning and that the people of this country can continue to get the services that they deserve from the Government of Belize.”
Love News understands that the unions are organizing a press conference for tomorrow. A press release is expected within the next few hours. We will keep you posted.