Just when you thought that the unions and the government would be moving forward on the issue of the public officers’ increments, a miscommunication of sorts has the parties back at an impasse. Last night we heard from the Vice President of the PSU, Dean Flowers who reported that yesterday’s meeting with the Prime Minister was cordial, an agreement was reached and the government would not have to act on their threat of amending the Statutory Instrument on public officers salaries. A few hours later, however, there was a shift and an agreement was no more. So, did Flowers talk too soon? Did he misunderstand? Our newsroom has been trying to reach him for comment along with BNTU’s President Elena Smith but we have been unsuccessful. We did hear from Prime Minister Dean Barrow, however, who explained what was discussed in yesterday’s meeting and what he thought was the final agreement when they left the meeting.
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister of Belize: “We thought that there was in fact a breakthrough because I repeat that we recited at the end of the meeting I was clear let me summarize where I think we have reached and you then tell me whether it’s accurate and whether this is what you accept and I did that and there was the oral acceptance. You know I don’t – I said to them yesterday that I’m sure that I would be questioned and while I wanted to treat with some degree of confidentiality the details of what had occurred it’s very difficult you have a right to know, the public has a right to know and I hope I’m not going too far but I think your question needs an answer. From the start we had said ‘You loose your increments for 2020-2021 but for any public officer as soon as that public officer reaches retirement age after 2021 after the end fiscal year 2021 for purposes of calculating your retirement benefits we will act as though that foregone increment we will treat it as part of the mix. Indeed because of how the modalities of actually achieving that can be a little bit tricky we agreed on the formation of a small committee that would examine exactly how the calculations would take place but I don’t need to trouble you with the particulars of that. The fact is the agreement, government’s position was you forego the increments although at the time of retirement those increments, the foregone increments would be inputted into the formula for determining your pension benefits. The unions or at least two of the unions said ‘Oh no. We only want the increments to be deferred until a time certain.’ meaning I think in one case they said two years they came up with another possible formula as soon as there is a 2% GDP growth; we absolutely, government that is, refuse to accept that. But I made a concession and I said listen increments foregone but if at any time down the road the circumstances change the recovery and the rebound that we hope will come as soon as possible, if it happens that we see a significant improvement in the economy once that takes place you the unions will be entitled to ask government to revisit the entire situation and I would make the commitment from now that such a reexamination will take place. Did not commit that the reexamination would necessarily result in a restoration of the increments but that we would reexamine is in fact logical and to my mind was always inherent in the formula that we came up with. In the course of human affairs there’s a position that’s agreed but if things change naturally that change ought to precipitate some reconsideration of the position without making any promise that there would be an automatic restoration of increments and I thought that was fine and it struck us that they also thought that was fine.”
According to the Prime Minister, the unions are adamant in leaving the option open to have their increments restored at some point in the future. He says while the government can commit for discussions down the road it would not signal an automatic restoration of the frozen increments for this year.
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister of Belize: “Where we are now is that they don’t want to stick by the language that had been read out at the end of the meeting they want to change the language to say that the increments will not foregone they will be deferred even though they say deferred until retirement is reached. For me it’s not a distinction without a difference. That was the crux of the matter, words have meanings. We agreed yesterday that it was a question of foregoing the increments and I’m afraid that government is determined to stick to that. So for us the final position is the increments are foregone but we concede that if circumstances so warrant a time could well come when the position would need to be reexamined. They want us to put that the increments are not foregone they’re only deferred we cannot accept that and that is not what was the agreement yesterday at the end of the meeting so there you have it.”
In a letter from the Financial Secretary, Joseph Waight to the President of the PSU, Gerald Henry, the Government indicated that the alternative to the union not agreeing to forego this year’s increment would be the amendment of a Statutory Instrument that would give the government the authority to adjust salaries, allowances, and increments. While yesterday, the PSU’s Vice President indicated that the Prime Minister would not have to proceed with the amended SI, Prime Minister Barrow says it remains an option. He added that there is also the option of a cut in public officers’ salaries and/or a retrenchment exercise, albeit a last resort for him.
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, Prime Minister of Belize: “When we wrote to the unions via the financial secretary and raised that possibility it was in a particular context. We were saying listen this is a small price for you to pay , that is the foregoing of the increments and we are determined that that price should be paid in the context of the larger picture, we wish for you to agree. If you don’t agree we will do it in any event we are going to do it and to try to put ourselves on the best possible footing for doing it we contemplate the amendment of the public service regulations to give the minister the legal power to alter the terms and conditions. The corollary, what was implicit and I think maybe even expressed was that if we agree there is no need then to amend the SI. The only possible justification for still proceeding with the amendment if we are able to agree and I repeat that although there was this hiccup based on their response to the FS’s letter yesterday we’re still very close. The only possible justification then if we agreed for us to contemplate still amending the SI would be to give us flexibility in the event we ever reached the point that we needed to go beyond the foregoing of increments, in the event we reached the point where we had to begin talking about salary cuts or the cuts in staff numbers. Now I repeat my own commitment to prevent that from ever happening either substantive salary cuts or substantive cuts in the number of staff if I then ,notwithstanding an agreement on this increment matter, still proceeded to amend the SI it strikes me that I would be signalling that I am despite saying otherwise preparing for this possibility of having to do salary or staff cuts.”