KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – If the Public Service Union (PSU) forces the government to pay before it can afford the salary increase owed since January 2011, Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves would take money from other programmes that benefit public servants, their children, or both.
Trade unions representing state employees — except the PSU — agreed with the government late last year to wait until June for a further review of the nation’s economic circumstances to determine whether the salary increase can be paid then.
Union members, at a Jan. 5 meeting, instructed the union to ask the government to consider its Dec. 8 proposal that the government pay in 2012 a negotiated portion of the agreed 3 per cent, and pay the balance due in December, retroactively.
The PSU said at a Jan. 10 press briefing that forgoing the wage increase this year amounts to salary deduction for public servants.
The union’s general secretary, Elroy Boucher, noted the increases in water and solid waste rates and property taxes while there has not been a salary increase for public servants in two years.
‘… cost of living has gone up and you are paying more for food,” Boucher told reporters.
“The government says the economy can’t afford it, but at the same time you are giving permission for these increases. Where are public servants going to find the extra money to pay the water bill, whatever that increase is?” Boucher further said.
The Central Water and Sewerage Authority (CWSA) announced last week that consumers here will in February begin paying at least EC$5 more each month for water and garbage disposal.
Meanwhile, owners of properties with a market value of more than EC$25,000 will see their taxes increase an average of 15 per cent or as much as 25 per cent.
But Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance, said at a press briefing on Wednesday that he was satisfied that the vast majority of public servants think that his government’s position on the salary increase is reasonable.
“The fact that a particular trade union representative says something doesn’t mean that that trade unionist, on this issue, speaks for the majority of the people whom he represents,” Gonsalves said.
“Because the bulk of those members in the Public Service, they also voted for me you know – for the government,” said Gonsalves, whose Unity Labour Party was returned to office for a third term in December 2010.
“So don’t create an impression that because you are president of a public service union you necessarily speak for the entire membership,” he further added.
Gonsalves reiterated that his government has “not acted unreasonably”.
“So, okay, what do you do? Let’s take it to the most extreme militant point — where it would not reach. You close down the government by not turning up to work. … I say okay, that is what you want to do, fine.
“I pay you your increase but the EC$14 million that I have for students to go to university, … since I can’t print the money, I have to take the EC$7 million from there, or at least, I take a portion from there,” Gonsalves.
“In other words, reshuffle the pack,” he added.
“Some of the same public servants have children going to university. Some of them may themselves be going; they can’t have any money to finish their programmes because there is no money,” he further stated, adding, “These are the realities … and I put that in a practical sense.”
Gonsalves said that public servants, teachers, and police, “have done pretty well” in terms of salaries, working condition, opportunities for study, the 100 per cent mortgages and other benefits since his government came to office in March 2001.
“But if you want to hold it and beat Ralph on his head with it, go ahead. If that gives you some pleasure, by all means, do it. … It doesn’t change anything. You still come back to the facts on the ground,” Gonsalves further stated.
He further said that he was informed that 35 persons attended the Jan. 5 meeting of PSU members and some of the attendees said the government was reasonable in the circumstances.
“The fact that St. Vincent and the Grenadines is holding things together and making progress in going forward is a remarkable thing for a small country,” said Gonsalves of the nation that has already confirmed three consecutive years of economic decline and possibly a fourth last year.