FRANKLY SPEAKING: Baffling union job proposals
The announcement by the Minister of Finance that 3 000 public workers would be retrenched early in the New Year, has spawned a lot of uninformed and at times misinformed comment. Many of those remarks have been coming from trade union leaders and experienced politicians who behave as though they have not progressed beyond the neophyte stage of their careers.
However, before I deal with the comments made by union leaders, I must admit that I am more than a bit confused by the way the Government mishandled the announcement. It is my understanding when a minister of Government delivers a ministerial statement from the floor of the House of Assembly; he is in fact declaring Government policy that has been endorsed by the Cabinet. And because of the doctrine of collective responsibility the entire Cabinet is deemed to have agreed to the policy.
Once the policy is announced, all members of the Cabinet must support it or resign, except in the rare case where a minister is allowed to vote his conscience on matters like the abolition of the death penalty and abortion.
It is therefore remarkably strange that the chairman of the Cabinet, none other than the Prime Minister, could publicly trash his Minister of Finance’s policy statement by stating that the way is still open for negotiations with the unions. If I were that minister, my resignation would have been on the PM’s desk post haste. But then again this is Barbados where anything goes.
Be that as it may, today I prefer to analyze the statements and proposals coming from the labour movement. The president of the Congress of Trade Union and Staff Associations of Barbados (CTUSAB), commenting on the proposal to send home 3 000 workers, was quoted in the Barbados Today on December 23 as saying: “Yes we say that things happen. A company could find itself in the same position. It goes into bankruptcy; the workers have to be severed. Understand though, in the public sector there is no severance [for] a civil servant who loses his or her job, there is only unemployment.”
That is only partially correct. It would be true to say that the Severance Payments Act does not apply to public employees who are pensionable.
However, in the case of temporary workers, who have not accumulated pensionable service, there are provisions for compensation arising out of a Cabinet decision in 1971. Back then, the Cabinet decided that public workers who were retrenched would be compensated in the same manner as private sector employees who qualified under the Severance Payments Act. Since then the Pensions Act was amended in 1978 to give effect to that decision. It states at section 8A(1):
Where the temporary employment of a person is terminated after not less than two years of service, the Minister may, in any case he considers appropriate, authorize the payment of compensation to that person.
Notwithstanding that section 7(1) of the same act provides that no officer shall have an absolute right to compensation for past services or to pension, gratuity or other allowance: no person has ever been denied compensation unless he or she had been adjudged to be guilty of serious misconduct. It would therefore be unreasonable and I dare say illegal to deny compensation to temporary public officers who were retrenched.
It would even be ludicrous when you consider that temporary officers from statutory boards would be entitled to compensation under the provisions of the Employment Rights Act. How could CTUSAB or Government therefore justify paying compensation to temporary employees from statutory boards and not temporary public officers? It is really starting to look like retrenching 3 000 is not going to be cheap.
It is laudable and indeed a union’s duty to put forward proposals to save jobs. However, the proposals should make sense and only come after careful study. To my mind a proposal to send workers on early retirement would further endanger Government’s finances. An officer who has completed 33 and one-third years’ service is entitled to receive a gratuity of twenty-five times his or her gross monthly salary and a monthly pension of half of his or her salary. Now pray tell me how could Government afford to pay 25 months gross pay at one time when it is finding it hard to pay one month net? My information is that there are approximately 1 600 people in the public service that qualify for early retirement. If Government can afford that expenditure there would be no crisis in the economy.
Additionally, what would motivate a union leader to propose sending home workers who are 55 years and over when retirement age is 67? Who is to say that these people have finished paying their mortgages or that they no longer have children at school?
Holding a referendum on cutting salaries is another proposal coming from a union that I find extremely baffling. The Constitution was amended in 1995 to prevent Government from reducing the salaries of public officers and I mean public officers in the strictest sense. Government never had the right to cut the salaries of employees at statutory boards but that is for another column. Parliament would have to pass a bill to re-amend the Constitution in order to cut the salaries of public officers. That would require 20 votes in the House of Assembly and 14 in Senate.
If Government introduces a constitutional amendment and fails; it would be obligated to resign. On second thought, the union might be on to something; introducing the amendment now seems like a great idea.
• Caswell Franklyn is a trade unionist and social commentator.