KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – The government should refocus its spending as it defers for yet another six months the payment of salary increases due to public servants since January 2011, sources familiar with negotiations between the government and the Teacher’s Union tell I-Witness News.
The Union and the government are trying to seal a new collective agreement and the sources offer different views on the government’ ability to pay immediately the 3 per cent salary increase owed to civil servants.
All but one of the trade unions representing civil servants here have accepted the Dr. Ralph Gonsalves Unity Labour Party’s administration’s request to wait until June for a review of the nation’s economic situation before the monies are paid.
Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance, has told Parliament that the payments, if made in June, will be made retroactively.
But one source familiar with the talks between the government and the Teachers’ Union told I-Witness News that the government is in a position to pay the monies now.
The source, who asked for anonymity, cited the EC$1,540,000 that Gonsalves has asked Parliament to allocate this year for services related to the Office of the Prime Minister.
EC$500,000 are for special development projects, EC$260,000 to refurbish the Official Residence of the Prime Minister while EC$200,000 will be for security quarters and EC$80,000 for a new vehicle there.
A further EC$500,000 will be for special works and services to be decided by the Prime Minister’s but the funds will be managed by the Cabinet Secretary.
“My position is that based on the way that the government is spending money, I believe that the government can pay,” the source told I-Witness News.
“Gonsalves has gone on some foreign trip somewhere. Where is he getting money to get all of that?” the source added, referring to Gonsalves’ 15-day trip to Bethlehem, Georgia, and Azerbaijan that will see him returning to the state today.
“The point that I am making is that the Union should not just roll over; that pressure should be brought to bear on the government. If Gonsalves were in opposition, he would be using the unions to make noise with the government.
“In the past, when another government was in office, these guys were forcing the union. When the government said it could not pay a certain percentage, people like Gonsalves kept using the union to make noise for more money, up to 30 per cent,” the source said.
Asked if such an approach would be in the best interest of the country, which has already registered three years of economic decline, the source responded:
“I understand what you are saying but I believe that the government can pay the public servants their 3 per cent.”
Commenting on the monies to be allocated to Office of the Prime Minister, the source said, “The Prim Minister has to know where that is coming form to ask for that.
“… The things that the Prime Minister is asking for, the way that he is behaving, it’s not as if we have an economic crisis. There is something like six or seven SUVs in that yard (The Prime Minister’s Residence) already and he is asking for another one and all this kind of extravagance.”
Gonsalves has told Parliament that the vehicle being replaced is old and breaks down often while the official residence has a leak problem and quarters for his security are inadequate.
But another source, close to the negotiation, said that one has to be “careful” with basing an argument for immediate payments of the salary increase on the monies allocated for the upkeep of the Prime Minister.
“In any case, what the government has done in the budget is to look at estimates. They are banking that they will receive certain monies and they have made certain allocation based on that. One does not know if they will realise that kind of money,” said the source, who also asked for anonymity.
“I am saying that it all depends on where your priority lies. Government can afford anything if you look at spending in certain areas,” the source further said.
The source told I-Witness News that many citizens think that “there are too many persons employed who should be at home.
“I am talking about persons who have reached retirement age but have contracts and all those kind of things,” the source explained.
“One would argue that if you remove those persons you would be making a saving. As to whether or not that saving would be sufficient to cover the 3 per cent that you have to give out is another discussion. I don’t know. I am not sure what figures you are playing with,” the source said.
The Gonsalves government has been criticised by segments of the population for the number of consultants it employs, including retirees, to do job that some say are either unnecessary or can be done by regular public servants.
But the source said it is “just a political argument to talk about the allocations for vehicles or fixing the prime minister’s house.
“… What I would argue strongly against is the fact that you have persons who are getting money — because that is coming form the same vote, salaries and so on — that should not be employed by the state because they have passed the age of retirement, some of them are in contractual positions that other person can do,” the source said.
“You have primary school principals with contracts. That is foolishness. Not when you have so many person with the qualification and training who can easily take over jobs like that.
“So, I am saying, where you have persons employed that way. I have a problem with that. But, I don’t know how many such persons are employed, what is the cost and how that compares with the 3 per cent,” the source said.