By Kenton X. Chance
Prime Minister, Ralph Gonsalves, on Friday, expressed disappointment that the two main trade unions representing public sector workers in St. Vincent and the Grenadines have announced a strike for Tuesday and has appealed to them to reconsider.
The strike looms as the Teachers’ Union and the Public Service Union (PSU) continue their efforts to pressure the government to pay workers one month’s salary, tax-free, in lieu of stagnant salaries since 2011.
The unions say they want the payment — which amounts to EC$25 million — before general elections, expected before year-end — ahead of the March 2016 constitutional deadline.
Gonsalves, in an address circulated via state media, said that the pending industrial action is “ill-advised” and is not in the personal interest of the public servants and their families or the nation.
“I want to appeal to the teachers and the public servants not to stay away from work on Tuesday. It’s not in the interest, I submit, of they themselves, it is not in the interest of the country, not in the interest of the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and so far as those involved in the education system are concerned, not in the interest of the parents and certainly not in their interest of the students.”
Gonsalves took issue with the manner in which the decision to strike was made, saying that the unions did not return to the negotiating table before deciding to take industrial action.
Speaking of the backdrop, Gonsalves said the leadership of the two unions have been engaged with him in a discussion about salary increases.
He noted that a salary increase was last given in 2011, adding that the discussion has been taking place within the context of stagnating revenues or low growth in revenue, either because of the impact of the global economic meltdown or natural disasters, which, he said, “have created challenges on the revenue front”.
The discussions, the last of which was in July, have included the Police Welfare Association, the Commercial, Technical and Allied Workers Union and the National Workers Movement.
Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance, said that during the last negotiations in July, he reviewed the half-yearly performance of the government’s fiscal situation and showed the unions that there was a small deficit on the current account.
He said that he suggested that a review be done again in September, or October, but the unions said no, adding that they would go back to their membership and will not meet with the government unless it had something new to report.
“Well if we in conversation and whatever process you have gone through with your members and they decide that they are going to go on a strike, I would expect, given the discussion that we were having, you would come to me and say, ‘Listen, let us talk again. This is what our memberships have told us in general meetings. That hasn’t happened,” Gonsalves said on Friday.
But Gonsalves had announced a similar stance to the nation’s parliament when he updated lawmakers about the negotiations in August, telling them that the talks have been shelved until his government’s financial situation improves.
“I have seen a report where it said the teachers said they have suspended discussion. There was no question of a suspending of the discussions. We just agreed that we wouldn’t meet again unless there was some change in the circumstances,” Gonsalves told lawmakers in August.
He said on Friday that his government has had excellent relations with the public servants and their unions.
“So, I am disappointed that an action as drastic as this is proposed without a recourse to a further dialogue.”
He said that during the last round of negotiations, the unions asked that his government pay half-month salary, but his government could not afford that amount.
The unions also proposed a figure less than half-month, Gonsalves said, adding that he told them that he has to look at the numbers and see the outturn of the next quarter, which ended in September.
“They know that I will do my best, and all the teachers and all the public servants and everybody in this country know that Ralph will do his best. After all, this is a Labour government,” Gonsalves said.
He said the one-month salary amounts to an 8.5 per cent salary increase, “one-off albeit”.
This is a hefty salary increase, something that is not happening anywhere in the world, Gonsalves said, adding that workers are being laid off across the Caribbean.
He said it is not true that there have not been any salary enhancements over the past few years, as more than 60 per cent of the workers concerned get annual increments.
“It is no comfort to them that people who are on Public Assistance, who are worse off than they are, have not had an enhancement on their benefits since 2011 also,” said Gonsalves who has announced an EC$25 increase in Public Assistance from January 2016.
Gonsalves told reporters this week that his government can afford the increase, which will amount to an additional EC$137,000 per month, or EC$1.65 million per year, in a country where almost 10 per cent of the population receives some form of government assistance.
“I think we always have to put things in balance,” he said, noting that only St. Kitts and Nevis and SVG in the Eastern Caribbean Currency Union maintain annual increments for public servants and teachers.
He said that he has rejected the advice of the International Monetary Fund to do away with the practice of giving annual increments.
Gonsalves said that comparatively, teachers and public servants have done quite well under his government, which came to office in 2001.
He said the salaries for teachers and public servants have increased, nominally, on an average of 70 per cent since 2001 and the real increase after taking account for inflation is 40 per cent.
These increases are a result of normal salary increases, increments, reclassification in 2007, and one-off bonuses before the global economic meltdown, Gonsalves said.
“I want the teachers, I am talking to the students, the parents, the public servants, the whole community I am talking to, to see the balanced manner in which I am approaching this question and the way in which they must know that we have done a great deal for the teachers and I have more in the pipeline doing.
“But I am constrained by the fiscal situation, which is not news to anybody, because I have spoken about this all the time, and the world knows about it, because the world experiences these things.”
Gonsalves told Parliament on Sept. 21 that his government ended the first seven months of this year in a slightly better financial position than the same period last year, but still with a multi-million dollar deficit.
The overall balance as at July 31, 2015, was a deficit of EC$21.6 million compared to a deficit of EC$33.7 million in 2014.
He said on Friday that while teachers are being paid more now than in 2001, there are fewer students per teacher.
In primary schools, there is, on average, one teacher for every 12 students, compared to one teacher for every 16 students in 2001.
The amount of money spent per student per year in primary school in 2001 was $1,487, compared to $3,304 in 2015, most of the recurrent spending is on salaries.
In secondary schools, “the story is “roughly the same”, where there were 19.6 students per teacher in 2001, compared to 14.1 today, while recurrent spending was EC$1,616, compared to EC$3,628.
The government has introduced 100 per cent mortgage for teachers and public servants, who have also benefited from the low- and middle-income housing programme, Gonsalves said, even as he noted that there were four teachers in primary schools with university degrees in 2001, compared to 600 today.
Workers are now paying less tax than in 2001, as the rate of income tax has fallen from 40 per cent to 32 per cent at the top, and at the bottom, the first $18,000 is exempt, compared to $12,000 before then.
“I tell you this. Personally, it hurts me when I see what I have done and this government has done so much for teachers and the education system to see this action proposed, it pains me. I am not fooling anybody on it. I am telling you.”
Gonsalves said that the children of teachers and public servants are benefiting from his government’s policy on education.
His government is spending now almost twice on recurrent expenditure on primary education than in 2001, three times as much on secondary education as in 2001, and four times as much at the Community College, while spending at university has “gone through the roof,” he said.
This year, EC$7.5 million is being paid to UWI for economic cost and EC$6.5 million to the public service commission for scholarships and grants, and the government has guaranteed EC$90 million in loans for economically disadvantaged students.
“Now, I am not painting a picture which is glorious. I am painting a good picture as to what we have done. That the teachers deserve more, I say yes. Can the government afford what they are asking? I say no. Have the teacher and the public servants done comparatively well under this government? The answer is yes — In salaries, emoluments, working conditions, scholarships, hundred per cent mortgages for housing programme,” Gonsalves said.
“They know — every single one of them — that I am trying my best. And as I talk, I am trying my best to see in what way I can help with an enhancement.
“I already told them that an increase will come in January 2016. But this, what they have proposed is ill-advised and is contrary to the interest of the public, the teachers themselves and the parents and the students, and I am asking them not to go ahead with this.
“They do not have the public on their side. It is for them to think and believe whether they have their own members on their side. That is something we will see on Tuesday. But I am urging all teachers to go to work on Tuesday. I’m urging all parents to send their children to school on Tuesday. I am urging all concerned for us to work together,” Gonsalves said.