A 2.5 per cent salary increase for 2015, retroactive to Jan. 1 and payable on Dec. 18, was among the 14 announcements that Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves made in his Independence Address on Tuesday as St. Vincent and the Grenadines celebrated 36 years of Independence from Britain.
“This increase is at 2. 5 per cent, and it is tax-free. The cost to the Treasury amounts to approximately 7.25 million dollars,” Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance, said to cheers at Victoria Park, where the military parade in observance of the Independence anniversary was held.
It is the first salary increase for public sector workers since 2011.
Gonsalves’ announcement came one day after the 1,500-member strong Public Service Union, wrote to the Director of Finance indicating that its members are expecting a 1.5 per cent salary increase for 2014, 2.5 per cent for 2015 and 2 per cent for 2016.
Gonsalves said the 2015 salary increase will cost the Treasury EC$7 million and announced a 1.5 per cent increase for 2016.
“There are also increases between the years intervening after 2011 to 2015,” he told the gathering and media audiences, but did not elaborate.
Gonsalves said he and the representatives of the public sector unions arrived at “this sensible and mature understanding” in a meeting one week earlier.
But the figures announced by the Prime Minister are one-half of a percentage point less than president of the PSU, Elroy Boucher, told the media last week was agreed during the negotiations.
Gonsalves further said the statutory mechanics to review minimum wages for all categories of workers is expected to report to Cabinet in the New Year.
The recommendations will surely result in an increase in minimum wages, he said.
The Prime Minister, who will face the electorate in election, expected before mid-December, ahead of the March 2016 constitutional deadline, said he intends to create a number of senior graduate teaching posts from the current 65 “to a number closer to one hundred to facilitate further upward mobility to these beneficiaries of the education revolution”.
Gonsalves further repeated his commitment to increase by EC$25 the monthly welfare payment that persons received under the Public Assistance programme.
This will see persons over 65 years receiving EC$250 monthly, while those under 65 will received, EC$225, which, he said, will cost an additional EC$1.5 million annually.
An actuarial review of the National Insurance Services is underway and Gonsalves said he expect it will recommend increases in minimum benefits and pensions from early 2016.
He also repeated an announcement made earlier this month that his Unity Labour Party has awarded a record number of 31 national scholarship, national exhibitions and bursaries arising from the 2015 Caribbean Examination Ordinary and Advanced Level examination.
In 2016, these numbers will be augmented for government-assisted university education through the award of 70 tuition scholarships and grants, at least 100 specially designed loans for university students under the Economically Disadvantaged Student Loans Programme and assorted scholarship, grants, and payment of economic costs to dozes more of young Vincentians to go to university, Gonsalves said.
The government will spend over EC$20 million directly in 2016 on post-secondary and tertiary education.
“Currently, we have 2,500 students at our Community College and over 1,000 perusing university education through the efforts of our government. We are on target to achieve one college or university graduate on average per household by the year 2025.”
This week, 745 student who graduated at the appropriate level at the CAPE or CXC examination will each receive EC$500 as a monetary reward for their achievements, Gonsalves said, repeating an announcement made earlier this month.
He also reiterated that he has instructed the Community College to provide him with a list of students who have completed associate degree programmes at the average level of B+ and above for receipt of EC$500 each.
Gonsalves also reiterated that he has authorised the Community College to recruit 80 persons — an increase of 15 — as the next batch of students to enter the Division of Nursing Education to pursue the requisite nursing education qualification.
“My government will continue to pay these nursing students a month stipend of $1,000 while providing them with a free, professional education, the only place in Caribbean that does that.”
In the 2016 Budget to be delivered in 2016, the government will accord all nursing assistants the status of pensionable public servants, Gonsalves said.
“They deserve it. They will thus be put on the same footing in this regard as registered nurses,” Gonsalves said, adding that he wants to thanks the two nursing assistants who he said spoke to him on this matter when he visited the hospital a week ago.
The annual Christmas road-cleaning programme will begin shortly, Gonsalves said, adding that he expects some 4,500 persons will be engaged in this short-term work programme at a cost of EC$3 million.
He further said a special short-term works programme of 150 persons will be instituted at the Port Authority to assist with the additional activity at the Port in the onrush of the busy Christmas season.
The duty-free concession on Christmas barrel will start on November 9, Gonsalves said, noting that the initiative that his government has pioneered across the Caribbean is into its 15th year.
Gonsalves further said that before Christmas, his government will distribute a further 200 lots of land at preferential prices in its on-going land distribution programme.
The Prime Minister said that since coming to office in 2001, his government has distributed over 4,500 such parcels of land.
“This is an absolutely amazing performance.”
He said his government is committed to providing substantial and other direct financial support to the national football team, “Vincy Heat” in the football World Cup qualifiers.
“I am personally involved in this,” he said, adding that on Monday he discussed the matter with President of the Football Federation, Venold Coombs.
The team will leave for the United States on Friday to prepare to play that nation’s team on Nov. 13.
The United States will play Vincy Heat in St. Vincent on Feb. 2, 2016.
“What a weekend that will be next year with our overseas nationals and visitors arriving at the Argyle International Airport on regular and chartered flights to be with us for a few days to watch us play football; to engage in sports and culture. The world will be watching us as Labour Day in Brooklyn comes to St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Gonsalves said to cheers.
The long-delayed international airport has missed completion deadlines annually since 2011 and political observers say it will not be ready to receive flights by year-end, the latest date set by the government for the EC$729 million project to become operational.
Gonsalves also announced that farmers and fisher folks will in 2016, for the third consecutive year, have available to them EC$6 million in low interest loans under the state-owned Farmers Support Company, financed by PetroCaribe.
The Prime Minister also named 14 sports and culture ambassadors, who have the privilege of carrying a diplomatic passport.