PM responds to Joint Unions’ increment demands

The content originally appeared on: News Americas Now

Black Immigrant Daily News

The content originally appeared on: Amandala Newspaper

Photo: PM John Briceño

by Kory Leslie (Freelance Writer)

SAN PEDRO TOWN, Wed. Feb. 8, 2023

On Wednesday, the Government of Belize hosted a Joint Annual Meeting on Restoring Degraded Lands in San Pedro. This gave the media an opportunity to get feedback from Prime Minister John Briceno following a press conference held by the joint unions (the Public Service Union and the Belize National Teachers Union) on Tuesday, in which they lamented the ways in which they believe public workers have been treated unfairly by GOB. As reported, the unions have been consulting with their members in an effort to reach an agreement on what steps they will take next if salary increments for public workers aren’t unfrozen by April 1, 2023. The unions also spoke out against inflation, price gouging, inadequate pension and allowances for teachers, and the GOB’s plan to introduce pension reform.

Notably, union reps at the press conference did not explicitly indicate that they would be taking industrial action should their demands not be met on April 1. However, PSU president Dean Flowers did state that public officers are waiting for the signal to take action. At this time, though, the unions are “still waiting to be called to this table,” according to Flowers. This might change following the PM’s remarks yesterday, which confirmed that public officers will not see their increments unfrozen in the upcoming months. While Hon. Briceno said that he cannot object to to a decision by the unions to go on strike, he noted that at the onset of the pandemic, public officers were not required to make the sort of sacrifices that many in the private sector had to make after a nosedive in economic activity due to Covid-19.

“Well, I have always started with the premise that the unions have a right to strike, and if they believe they have a need to strike, they can strike. It is their right in this country. But what is important to us is that we are doing the right thing. When we met with the Joint Unions in early 2021, we laid the facts on them that Belize was on the verge of bankruptcy. We had no money to pay them, and we all had to do some sort of sacrifice because — let me point out that during the pandemic, public officers all collected a hundred percent of their salaries. But if you are to ask people in the private sector, many lost their jobs, many more got significant pay cuts. So, they got their full hundred percent of their salaries, and it was time for them to make their sacrifice. We could have been political about the decision back then, because one of the recommendations from the IMF was that we dismiss at least three thousand employees, and we, in good conscience, just could not do that…It’s not a matter of not wanting to unfreeze the increments. It’s a matter of sitting down and talking with them. I have said this to them already in a joint meeting that we had around the middle of December. I have explained this to them, so this is nothing new. The point is that it is unsustainable and as a country we cannot afford it. The higher that goes up, the less we have for education, the less we have for health, the less we have to provide the necessary infrastructure development in the country, the less we have for housing. So, it is important for us to be able to sit down as partners to be able to work on this,” he stated.

On the matter of pension reform, the joint unions also vehemently rejected the notion of a new “contributory pension scheme,” and Flowers stated that no one currently in the public sector will contribute to the fund. This stance was also challenged by the Prime Minister, who stressed that public pension cannot continue to be an expense borne by taxpayers:

“Belize is one of the probably few countries in the world where the pension is paid by the taxpayers – one hundred percent. As we come to the end of this financial year, we will be paying up to a hundred million dollars. By 2035 it is going to be a hundred and thirty million dollars. It is going up exponentially. We cannot afford it. So, we have to find a way where we can protect, or have a grandfather clause, where those who are in the system for a number of years do not lose, because it would not be fair to them. But we have to come up with a new formula where the public officers and the government combined would make payment towards a pension to them,” he said.

Regarding the issue of teachers’ allowances, Hon. Briceno said that this is something he is willing to “take a look at,” but that there are many other challenges facing Belize’s education system, such as lack of proper infrastructure, and the inability of many to finance their children’s schooling etc. In the end, the PM stated that the running of the country is a collective effort that requires a collective effort from all citizens. including the unions, for the benefit of all.