By Kenton X. Chance
The two main trade unions representing public sector workers in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, on Sunday, reiterated their intention to stage a one-day strike on Tuesday to pressure the government to pay workers one month’s salary tax-free in lieu of salary increases since 2011.
The reaffirmation came two days after Prime Minster, Ralph Gonsalves, issued, through state media, a video and audio appeal urging public sector workers not to stay away from the job.
But the union called on their members to stand together, saying that is the only way that the government will take their demands seriously.
“We are calling on our members to take heed. To parents, we have already issued a press release. Keep your children at home,” president of the Teachers’ Union, Oswald Robinson, told I-Witness News.
“The St. Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers’ Union is withdrawing the services of its members. Those of you who choose to go, you are at your own risk. You will not be protected by the trade union, because the trade union has issued a statement to stay off the job.
“We are asking all parents to co-operate with us. Just remember, Tuesday the 13th of October, the Teachers’ Union and the Public Service Union … have echoed and we are now reaffirming that position,” he further said.
Speaking in the same interview, President of the Public Service Union, Elroy Boucher, highlighted the situation facing public sector workers.
“… there is clearly a need for some financial relief for public servants and teachers. It is clear now that the Prime Minister does not understand and feel our financial pain,” president of Public Service Union, Elroy Boucher, told I-Witness News.
“It is clear that there is no real concern for our situation. It is also clear to me that public servants and the unions are being taken for granted in this regard.
“I, therefore, call on all public servants to heed the call of the unions and withdraw your services for one day, Tuesday 13th October, in protest. This action is as a result of the government’s failure to meet our demand to put an acceptable offer on the table.
“Stand firm. Stand with your unions,” Boucher said.
The unions have said that they want the government to make the one-month payment, before general elections.
Gonsalves has said he will allow Vincentians to elect a new government before year-end, ahead of the March 2016 constitutional deadline.
But Gonsalves has said that his government cannot afford, until 2016, the one-month payment, which, he said, will amount to EC$25 million.
The salary negotiations began in December 2014, when the PSU and the Teachers’ Union requested a meeting with the government to discuss salary increases on behalf of public servants and teachers.
Gonsalves –who is also Minister of Finance — led the government’s team and the meeting discussed salary increases for the 2012-2015 period.
The Prime Minister told the meeting that his government cannot afford to pay the salary increases but will look at salary increases for 2016.
The unions informed Gonsalves that they will discuss 2016 increases next year, but wished to propose a compromise for the period 2012-2015.
The compromise was the proposed one-month tax-free salary payment as a write-off for salary increases not granted for 2012-2015.
“We were cognisant of the fact that a negotiated salary increase for the period 2012-2015 would be the best option for public servants. We, however, understand the government’s position and decided to offer a compromise,” Boucher said.
“We were told by the Prime Minister that the proposal is reasonable,” Boucher told I-Witness News, adding that Gonsalves had no intention to negotiate any salary increase with the union for 2012-2015 period.
Gonsalves has since said in his public statements that he is seeking the interest of public servants and teachers who are about to retire, and a salary increase will ensure that they exit the system with higher benefits.
“It is somewhat ironic that the Prime Minister is expressing a preference for a salary increase at this time,” Boucher told I-Witness News.
He said that the PSU will gladly negotiate a salary increase for the period 2012-2015.
“So it is disingenuous for him to express concern for those public servants who are close to retirement and the negative impact a non-salary increase will have on their retirement package.”
Boucher noted the impact of inflation on the income of public sector workers.
“The accumulative rate of inflation for the period 2011-2014 is 6.8 per cent,” he said, adding that workers have seen a decrease in their real income.
“This decrease is clearly due to the fact that prices continue to rise while income remains static. This decrease is clearly due to income remaining static. This decrease is also having an impact on the quality of life and on our ability to provide for our families.
“I must also stress, a large proportion of the public service were not impacted positively by re-classification. Just to name a few: junior clerk, senior clerk, executive officer, are among those whose salary did not change,” he said.
Meanwhile, Robinson referred to what he described as “failure” of the Unity Labour Party administration “to demonstrate that it is a Labour government”.
He quoted a 1966 charter of the International Labour Organisation and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which recommended that teachers’ salaries should be calculated annually.
The document further states that salary scales for teachers should be reviewed periodically to account for increases in cost of living, increased productivity leading to higher standards of living in the country or a general upward movement in wage or salary levels.
“I think the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is trying desperately to mislead the general public,” Robinson said.
He noted that Gonsalves has referred to increments paid to public sector workers, but pointed out that increments are part of a salary system where workers begin at the lowest level and move up to the maximum.
“As a matter of fact, unions have been unable to negotiate salaries. The government has been legislating salaries, which removes the right to collective bargaining by unions. As a result, our salary has been frozen and this has greatly affected pension and gratuity.”
Robinson described as interesting, the position of the government that is interested in giving a salary increase because it has implications for pensions and gratuity.
“But we have been unable, as a union, under the government to negotiate salaries. So that is very strange. As a matter of fact, when we tried to negotiate salaries, we were unable to do so, and that is why we ask for a compensation for the four years we have not received any salary increases,” he told I-Witness News.
Robinson said that the unions asked the government two questions when they presented the one-month salary increase proposal.
They asked Gonsalves to say if the proposal was unreasonable, and he responded by saying he can’t say that because trade unions have to look out for their members.
The second question was when the salary payment could be made.
Robison said that Gonsalves told the unions in December 2014 that he will get back to them by the end of the first quarter of 2015.
At the end of that period, the unions wrote to Gonsalves again, and reminded him of the proposal.
But during the negotiation, he kept asking the unions to allow him to catch his hand, Robinson told I-Witness News.
“But no real effort has been made by the government to ensure that the workers of this country receive that relief, given that the fact that the purchasing power of workers have become worse.
“As a matter of fact, the point to point rate of inflation in 2010 was 0.8 per cent. In 2011, it was 3.2 per cent, and in 2012, it was 2.6 per cent,” he said.
He said that compared to the rest of the Caribbean, SVG has the lowest minimum wage in the entire Organisation of Eastern Caribbean states.
At the same time, Vincentians pay more taxes than any other CARICOM state and pay taxes on items that are not taxed in other countries in the union, Robinson said.
“Our collective agreement has been constantly violated — the election leave. I want the prime minister to comment on the election leave. Why is it that our brothers have not been reinstated to their position?” Robinson said.
He was referring to teachers, Addison “Bash” Thomas, Kenroy Johnson, and Elvis Daniel, who were not rehired after they ran for the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) and lost in the December 2010 general elections.
Robinson also mentioned career education, Otto Sam who was transferred to the government’s disaster management agency and later fired from the public service.
“Then we have seen the short payment of end of year allowances for principals. Since 2010, the government has short paid the principals in this country 90 dollars each of those years. Up to now, that has not been honoured.
“And then there is the Ketty Rhynd issue, a teacher who protested discrimination against women. She was transferred from the mainland to Union Island, never received her Hard Area Allowance from 2009 until 2014,” he told I-Witness News.
“And there are many cases, we could cite. A failure of the government to demonstrate that it is indeed representing the best interest of workers in this country.”
Robinson said public sector salaries in SVG are among the lowest in the OECS.
“We have seen the performance of our teachers. If we are going to use examination results as a yardstick, but that is not the only yardstick we must use.
“The real value of a hundred dollars is approximately 85 dollars. Inflation [has] risen, our spending power [has] become less and, therefore, it clearly underscores the importance of the government to honour this request.”
He said that after the government failed to honour the union’s request, at the end of July, both unions decided to go back to their membership.
The PSU went a week before the Teachers’ Union, which went on Sept. 2, and the members mandated the unions to demand the salary increase and to call national, regional and international attention to the issue.
The unions met last Wednesday and decided on a one-day strike.
“It is very sad that the government has gone on its political platform to try to divide the leadership of both unions. It is very sad that it is going down this road, but it is too late to do so,” Robinson said.
“We are resolute. We stand firm together for the interest of our membership and for the rest of the society,” Robinson told I-Witness News.
He noted that the government has acknowledged the patience of teachers and public servants.
“The Prime Minster said we deserve it. At first, he said our proposal was reasonable, now we are moving forward together with courage and by the will of the Lord, we will receive that blessing that has been withheld from us for the last four years.
“Stand firm with your union and let us observe that one-day strike to send a clear message to the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Robinson further said.