Unions tell GOB take a Cut Yourself

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To formally respond to proposals made by the Briceno-led government, particularly the suggestions of wage cuts and the freeze of increments, unions held a joint press conference on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. This joint press conference included representation from the Public Service Union (PSU), Belize National Teacher’s Union (BNTU), and the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB). Before coming into office, the PUP showed constant support to public workers and teachers but now, that narrative seems to have changed. Understandably, there are financial constraints due to the COVID-19 pandemic and government spending needs to be significantly reduced but public officers are unhappy with Government’s proposals put forward to them.
For one, there is the suggestion of a 10% pay cut which might seem a negligible decrease to government officials but for the everyday worker, it is just not a viable solution, especially not in this economic climate. The cost of living continues to increase on a daily basis and since November 2020, the price of gasoline and diesel at the pump have increased starkly. Also, there has been the proposal of the freezing of increments, other salary and pension adjustments, and the modification of other benefits. On Tuesday, teachers belonging to the BNTU all over the country demonstrated throughout the streets in opposition to these proposals.
On Wednesday, the joint press conference was held to formally respond to these proposals. In their response, the members firmly rejected these suggestions. They suggested that the government look at the current wage bill and other government expenditure to streamline their spending. They have made it known that they are not in support of these suggestions and have cited that cutting the salaries of public officers will, admittedly, lessen government expenditure but will also have a worse effect by removing millions from the economy. The spending of public officers is responsible for some 30% of economic circulation in Belize while tourism accounts for around 40%. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this contribution has been significantly reduced, causing the initial 30% to account for more in economic circulation. By reducing the wage of public officers, the economy will be directly impacted.
Government would in turn lose millions instead of saving these funds. The Unions have suggested that the government better engage in consultations on the wider impacts and to look at more appropriate cost-saving measures. While they are opposed to these suggestions, they say that they are open to an increment freeze only if the government agrees to slim down its own benefits and reduce pay for ministers and other expenses. These include the high costs of government issued vehicles, entertainment expenses, and the costs to pay and maintain vehicles for high ranking government officials.
Senator Elena Smith, President of the BNTU, proposed on behalf of the Unions that the government become engaged in discussions with the Central Bank of Belize as well as commercial banks. At the end of these discussions, the Unions hope that they would come to an agreement to offer better rates to teachers and other public officers.
Another recommendation which the Unions presented was that Financial Secretary John Waight, Joy Grant, Governor of the Central Bank of Belize, and Auditor General Dorothy Bradley be let go. The Unions say that Waight, who has served with three consecutive administrations, did not properly do his job in preparing financial reports twice a year as necessary. Detailed in these reports would be government spending and expenses as well as the performance of other revenue generating statutory bodies. Grant is being criticized in her role as Governor at the Central Bank, one which is responsible to ensure that the country’s finances do not end up as dire as they now are in “debt unsustainability”. Next, the Unions are scrutinizing Bradley in her role as Auditor General for failing to audit and address high risk government ministries, such as the Ministry of Natural Resources. But the unions are not only stopping at Waight, Grant and Bradley, the Unions also suggest that all financial staff who are over the age of public service retirement, 55, be let go. They are of the opinion that neither administrations, while in opposition, did their job well.
For failing to properly manage and produce timely and accurate financial statements, the Unions are also asking for an assessment of the Accountant General’s office. In their proposal, they questions the Accountant General’s competence in the role as well as the role of his support staff. They are saying that the department has failed to properly reconcile government accounts.