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ALBERT BRANDFORD: Stealthy ageism at work

ALBERT BRANDFORD, [email protected]

ALBERT BRANDFORD: Stealthy ageism at work

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THE ISSUE OF AGE discrimination that emerged as the major bone of contention between the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) and the Barbados Industrial Development Corporation (BIDC) is not an isolated case; it is a policy position that has gone foul.

It is indicative of a wider leadership strategy that is built on stealth.

Last year, when the governor of the Central Bank announced that staff cuts were necessary in the face of sustained losses, it was suggested by the staff that older employees were being targeted. This is consistent with the charge of age discrimination.

Last week, the general secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) warned that it was keeping a close eye on the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) where retirement options were discussed with workers 60 years and over.

Again, the issue of age raised its old head.

Government has identified reducing staff levels at statutory boards (SBs) as part of its fiscal adjustment strategy. While the adjustment is about reducing cost, the language being used to sell the reduction is “improving efficiencies”.

But there is also a political dimension to the adjustment and it has to do with minimising the loss of political capital.

Given the increase in public sector workers since 2008, especially in SBs, the principle of last in, first out will not favour this Administration in any effort to reduce staff at this time. Therefore, the strategy of targeting workers 60 years and over is one that represents the loss of less political capital.

In this entire episode, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart has virtually removed himself from the process, only surfacing in times of crisis. Whenever he has emerged from the shadows, the content and style of his contributions have failed miserably to add clarity to the situations.

For a man with an appetite for words, his use of them in such moments has served to create more doubt than resolution.

According to the March 2015 Status Report – Barbados Medium Term Growth And Development Strategy 2013-2020 And The 19-Month Adjustment Programme – “the final report on improving efficiencies in the public service across twenty-two (22) agencies has been submitted to the Prime Minister for approval”.

On these matters, Stuart does not speak with the assurance of a leader who has given approval.

In the June 2015 Budget, it was left to Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler to speak about these agencies, which were referred to as state-owned enterprises (SOEs). He noted: “In 2014 as part of Government’s stated objective to pursue a medium-term fiscal consolidation and economic reform programme to reposition the country’s economy, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, with the concurrence of the Cabinet, decided to invite a team of public finance and management experts from CARTAC to do a comprehensive review of the state of the non-financial public sector of SOEs.”

In the case where the Minister of Finance is not the Prime Minister, his obsession is with getting the numbers right.

But there is a political dimension to the numbers from which the Prime Minister cannot escape since he is head of the Cabinet. Just as ignorance of the law is no excuse; ignorance of Cabinet matters is no excuse for any member, especially the Prime Minister.

During the first quarter of 2015, a team of advisors from CARTAC conducted a technical study of the SOEs and SBs and recommended a performance monitoring framework (PMF) to monitor their performance. A summary of the findings is available in the Budget, but the entire study is not available online like the tax study done by the IMF.

Is there something to hide?

Sinckler proposed that for the fiscal years 2015-2018, Government would implement a phased approach to the PMF. In the current fiscal year, five SOEs/SBs have been selected: Transport Board, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, National Housing Corporation, Barbados Agricultural Management Company Limited and Barbados Port Inc.

In spite of the BIDC not being identified, it received a letter of expectations alluded to in the Budget. It is not surprising that the same age discrimination charge has raised its head in the Public Service.

It was also stated that a corporate planning framework – a formal agreement between the board of directors of SOEs and SBs and the parent ministry to set the strategic direction and performance targets – had to be set.

It was not explicitly stated that workers would be sent home; rather, that the new strategy was to make them “more self-sufficient, accountable, customer-focused, and would add to the overall social and economic growth of the country”.

If Barbados stands to benefit, why would the CARTAC study not be made available so the contents can be shared with the public?

The answer is simple – Barbadians are going to lose jobs in the process of reforming the state-owned enterprises.

Unfortunately, there is a policy position to target workers who are 60 years and over as a first resort.

Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.

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