Recipients of Public Assistance — money given monthly to poor Vincentians — will see a monthly increase of EC$25 dollars from January, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves restated on Sunday.
Political observers say this is the clearest indication that the ruling Unity Labour Party will pit public sector workers and recipients of welfare benefits against each other ahead of the general elections, expected before year-end.
Public sector trade unions have demanded that the government pay the Vincentian teachers, before they go to the polls, one month’s salary tax-free in lieu of salary increases since 2011.
But, speaking on his party’s radio station on Wednesday, Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance, maintained that his government cannot afford to pay the one-month salary, which will amount to EC$25 million.
Gonsalves expressed hope that the vast majority of teachers and public servants “will see the reasonableness of what I am talking about, and at the same time, I reaffirm that I am trying my best to see what I can do, but not that.
“You can’t afford that,” he said.
“If you do that, you will have to dismantle, not just tinker here and there, you will have to dismantle some whole programmes — Home Help for the Elderly, you will have to slash by half the Public Assistance programme, you will have to slash people going off to university and so on and so forth … You will have to tell people on the SET programme we can’t deal with you anymore,” he said.
Public Relations Officer of the Teachers’ Union, Wendy Bynoe, suggested, on Sunday, that the government re-channel some of its resources to make the payment, which she said will act as an economic stimulus.
But Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance, said Bynoe’s suggestion “doesn’t even deserve a serious discussion.
“… And they know that that is a flimsy argument. I’ve seen it said — equally flimsy — that I’m borrowing money to do this, borrowing money to do that, why I can’t borrow money to pay the public servants.”
Parliament on Monday passed, without opposition support, a bill authorising the government to borrow US$16 million to go towards the completion of the EC$729 million airport at Argyle, which has missed completion deadlines annually since 2011.
The loan this week brings to approximately EC$263 million, the amount of money that the government has borrowed since June 2013 for the airport, which it says will be completed by the end of this year — a timeline that the opposition has dismissed as an election gimmick.
“So you borrow money to finish the airport or build a bridge which has collapsed or that I must borrow the money to pay the public servants rather than build the bridge at Caratal or the one at Byera or do the one at Grand Sable?” Gonsalves said.
“All we need is a discussion by the populace as to what is possible in the circumstance … and I am available to discuss any serious proposal,” he said.