In a speech titled “Time for Closure” Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony told the nation the government’s position on the current wage negotiation impasse with public sector employees. Dr Anthony on Wednesday night this week responded to the “sick out” staged by government workers which had disrupted work in the public and private sectors for two days. He painted a picture of the economic situation of the country before he went into the present circumstances.
“The Government that I lead inherited an unemployment rate of approximately 24%,” he revealed. “The unemployment rate among our young people in the labour force is particularly high, reaching an estimated 45%. It is believed that this rate of unemployment is particularly concentrated among the unskilled. Growth in our economy in recent years has been subdued, falling, it is estimated, to a low of -0.6% in 2012.” The PM went on: “To compound our situation, is the huge fiscal deficit, left behind by the former Government. This deficit stands at 10.7% of our gross domestic product (GDP).
It began to get out of control when the Stephenson King Government awarded a 14.5% increase to our public officers. We were forced to do what no government should do: borrow to meet the cost of salaries and other recurrent expenditure. By the end of March 2013, our debt will increase to 78% of our GDP. “Today, for the first time in our fiscal history since independence in 1979, the Caribbean Development Bank has included us among a list of seven countries in the Caribbean with a high and unsustainable debt. This is the environment, this is the economy in which public sector unions have demanded that the Government of Saint Lucia pay salary increases, initially of 16%, then 12%, later 9.5% and now 6% with stipulated conditions.”
The PM added that the returns from Value Added Tax are below expectations “and will not cover the increase in expenditure. We have no option but to borrow this money.” The latest proposal by the Trade Union Federation, explained the PM is a 6% increase with the following eight conditions being agreed to: “The Government through the Travel and Subsistence Committee would seek to give travelling officers a relief by agreeing to give them a one-off duty free concession on the importation of vehicles; “The Government is to put mechanisms in place to address the gap between the Government retirement age and the age at which officers are entitled to an NIC pension.
The Federation wants the matter resolved within six months; “The Government is to re-implement increments within one year; “The Reclassification Exercise is to be completed within one year; “Within one year, the Government is to amend the Labour Code to introduce an agency fee. The Trade Union Federation says it will work out the details with the Ministry. This would mean that union dues will be deducted from salaries of all public officers, even those who are not members of a union; “The Government is to divest Crown Lands to the unions so that they can sell it to their members; “The Government is to invest money into co-operative banks which would facilitate public servants to get loans at reasonable rates of interest; and the Government is to put mechanisms in place to ensure that public servants can get their tax refunds at the earliest.”
The Prime Minister told the nation on Wednesday the government is unable to agree to the conditions and can only offer a 4% increase in salaries and wages which will cost the Government of Saint Lucia $22.3 million. “In addition to the salary increase, the Government has agreed that an additional $4.1 million will be paid in allowances to uniformed persons, that is, to police officers, fire service officers, correctional officers and nurses,” said the PM. Dr Anthony reiterated that his government would not go above a 4 percent increase as the choice is either wage restraint or retrenchment. Toward the end of his speech Dr Anthony suggested that the matter be resolved by arbitration.
“I propose that the parties appoint a three member arbitration panel, made up of one arbitrator appointed by the Trade Union Federation, a second by the Government, and a third, a chairperson, appointed jointly by the agreement of the parties. Once the panel is constituted, hearings could be held in full glare of the public.” He said that “the Government agrees, without reservation or condition, that it would be bound by the decision of the panel. I urge our unions to consider and accept this proposal to bring closure to this unhappy situation.”
Following the Prime Minister’s speech there has been little reaction from Union leaders except to say that they will be meeting with their members. The STAR has been reliably informed that some headway has been made at least with one section of the public sector. It appears that the police officers have accepted the government offer, however, teachers and the CSA have said no dice after a meeting yesterday. It is unclear what, if any, further disruptions will occur at government offices and schools. Meanwhile the Chamber of Commerce has released a statement on the issue through its executive director Brian Louisy.
It reads: “The St. Lucia Chamber of Commerce Industry and Agriculture has noted that the Government Negotiating Team and the Trade Union Federation continued their negotiations yesterday afternoon, Thursday 28th February 2013. We are pleased that the parties have continued the negotiations and normal working conditions have returned.
“The St Lucia Chamber of Commerce urges the parties to continue to try to find common ground in a bid to conclude the current outstanding Collective Agreement. This move the Chamber believes is correct and positive, as differences of this sort are best resolved through dialogue, proportionality, tolerance and understanding of the interests of all concerned.
The statement went on: “The Chamber urges that careful consideration be given to the likely impact of a continued impasse on not just the precariously placed local economic environment, but also the unstable and unsettled global economic condition with all its attendant uncertainties particularly in St Lucia’s major Tourism source markets. At this time the St Lucia Chamber of Commerce Industry and Agriculture urges both parties to consider that care and balance may be the better part of valor as they pursue a reasonable and equitable solution. “The Chamber also acknowledges the Prime Minister’s proposal of Arbitration and sees this as another avenue for orderly resolution of this matter should the final outcome of these negotiations result in an impasse. As a mature democracy the St Lucia Chamber of Commerce Industry and Agriculture believes that we all must act responsibly in these difficult times. The Chamber stands ready to work with both parties if required and places its good office at their disposal.”
In a letter sent out yesterday to the media addressed to Chairman of the Government Negotiating Team, Vern Gill, the National Workers Union Secretary General George Goddard indicated that they do not want to the see the matter go into arbitration.
Stated Goddard: “The NWU and the GNT have reached agreement on all fringe benefits that were the subject of current negotiations and have made substantial progress in respect of wage adjustments for the Government’s daily paid and non-established employees. “ Our remit therefore is to continue negotiations with a view to concluding a collective agreement within the shortest possible time and to ensure its implementation. We would like to make it clear that there is no impasse in the negotiations between the National Workers’ Union and the Government Negotiating Team and we are committed to concluding a collective agreement . . .” The NWU has also asked the government for a date to continue peaceful negotiations.