FRANKLY SPEAKING: A wolf in wolf’s clothes
The Government is in the process of establishing a single entity that would be responsible for collecting its revenue. This proposed Central Revenue Authority is expected to replace the Customs, Inland Revenue and Land Tax departments, the VAT Division and the revenue collecting role of the Licensing Authority.
That announcement has sent the public officers, particularly temporary officers, of the affected departments into a state of panic. Be that as it may, no one can reasonably have a problem with the stated intent of making Government’s revenue collection more efficient.
Public officers’ fears come from the fact that Government has not rationally explained what would happen to the workers involved in the transition. So far, all that they have been told for certain is that the resultant organization will be a statutory corporation.
That by itself was enough to send shivers down the spine of the affected workers. Assurances by the Minister of Finance that all workers would be absorbed elsewhere in the Public Service if they do not opt to go with the new entity, do not comfort a single officer. Government does not have a good record of keeping its word in such circumstances. After all, public officers are seeing first-hand what is happening to the workers who were displaced to make room for the Financial Services Commission.
And memories of the horrors that characterized the transition of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) and the Grantley Adams International Airport (GAIA) still haunt those who suffered through the reorganization of those two bodies.
Workers at both QEH and GAIA, who did not opt to go with the restructured bodies, were either reassigned to other Public Service departments or sent home and given pensions in accordance with the provisions of the Pensions Act.
Surprisingly, this same fate does not await the workers who would be displaced by the establishment of the Central Revenue Authority. If workers opt to remain in the Public Service, and there are no posts available and have to be terminated, they would no longer be entitled to receive any compensation immediately unless they are 60 years of age or older.
Some officers may be surprised by these revelations because there were no amendments to the Pensions Act that would have ushered in these draconian provisions. Granted, there were no amendments to the legislation, but there has been a reinterpretation of the Pensions Act by the local courts and the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) that would see those displaced workers having to wait until they reach age 60 before seeing one red cent in compensation.
I am not trying to inflame the situation. Quite the contrary, I am trying to put public officers in a position to make informed decisions.
Prior to the decision of the CCJ in the Winton Campbell case which was delivered on April 3, 2009, public officers whose jobs were abolished (made redundant) were entitled to receive their pensions, until such time as Government offered them suitable alternative employment. The pension would cease until the person reached age 60 if he did not accept the job.
However, in my view, the courts misinterpreted the provisions of the Pensions Act when they ruled that displaced public officers are entitled to their pensions, but payment would be deferred until the persons reached age 60 or sooner if they died. Put simply, public officers whose jobs are abolished would now have to wait until their 60th birthday to receive any benefits to which they are entitled.
Further, persons in the private sector whose jobs have been made redundant are entitled to receive severance payments and National Insurance Unemployment Benefits. But in the Public Service no provisions, for severance pay and unemployment benefits have ever been made for permanently appointed public officers because better provisions existed for them under the Pensions Act.
The court ruling has made a mockery of those better provisions unless the worker is 60 years or older; it simply does not make sense.
The Severance Payment Act specifically provides at Section 14 that it does not apply to any person in respect of any employment which is employment in a public office. With the new reinterpretation of the Pensions Act, displaced public workers can now be sent home with only their last month’s pay.
Government must realize by now that the court’s ruling has set up an unconscionable situation for displaced public workers. Instead of taking steps to rectify the problem, the present administration has moved to exploit the inequitable situation by pressing the workers into accepting unfavourable employment conditions. When the Employment Rights Act comes into force, public officers would have worse conditions of service than any other group of workers in this country.
No one in their right mind would expect that a government of Barbados consisting of Barbadian-born members would treat its people in this manner. The proposed Central Revenue Authority has been exposed as a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Unfortunately, most public officers don’t know what a wolf looks like. It is left up to them to resist as best they can since it is apparent that political considerations take precedence when dealing with their welfare.
• Caswell Franklyn is a trade unionist and social commentator.