Headline — 29 January 2013 — by Miriam Longsworth
It’s on! Teachers, public officers “flex” tomorrow in Belmopan!

The National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) and the Joint Negotiating Team (JNT) held a press conference today, Monday, to restate their position on their entitlement to salary adjustments, and to make known the plight of public service workers and teachers as they make an effort to move forward in their negotiations with Government.

The union presidents at the press conference made it clear that they are not asking the government for a raise, but rather a “salary adjustment” in relation to the cost of living.

Immediate past president for the Association of Public Service Senior Managers (APSSM), George Myvette, said that there have been no less than 12 meetings over the past five years with government officials concerning the salary adjustment, among other important matters concerning the unions.

Myvette said that the unions have done nothing but negotiate in good faith, yet not all of their requests have been dealt with in a manner that’s been favourable to them. He said that the negotiations are still ongoing, but the unions will go on with their demonstration in the city of Belmopan tomorrow, Tuesday, to show Government that they are serious.

“We believe that we are at a stage where we have to demonstrate, that this is a national imperative that public officers and teachers are being heard, and that something is worked out that would benefit public workers and teachers,” he said.

President of the NTUCB, Dylan Reneau, said that he knows that there are positive developments that can help bring a happy conclusion to the matter.

“The fact is that we have positive growth between three and seven percent, as well as the positive inclinations you’ve heard about the Superbond renegotiations. Those are two positive things that we believe will enhance our arguments towards ensuring that we get that salary adjustment,” he said.

Reneau said that the situation the unions are in is directly tied to certain circumstances, including the use of a significant portion of the GDP to make Superbond payments.

“One of the things we want to draw to Government’s attention is though the DFC commission of inquiry was battled and silenced, they had a critical role to play in trying to recover those funds from the persons that were involved in the corruption that was happening at the DFC,” he said. “And so we draw the attention again to the government that we want to hear a report from them as to where they are in trying to recover those monies because those monies have now been bottled up in public debt which we as workers have to toil in order to pay that and it’s also impacting on us because now we can’t get our salary adjustment.”

Reneau said that the NTUCB should be placed on the board of the DFC in an effort to ensure that something is done about the situation. Reneau said that the union has approached the government on several occasions in order to secure a seat on the Central Bank board, which generates the monetary policies of the country.

“While we’ve made several attempts to government to try and get on that board, government has refused, and I think this is an opportune time for us to bring that forward again,” he said, adding, “If we are partners in this whole system of development, we have to be at all the important tables in order for you to hear the voices of the workers on all the issues that come up at these bodies.”

APSSM (Association of Public Service Senior Managers) president Jose Castellanos said that the government’s figures show that the rate of inflation is equal to or higher than salary increments. Castellanos said that the rate of inflation is 2.5 percent, but most public officers only receive a 1.9 percent increment per annum. He said that the figures given by the government do not accurately show the cost of inflation and economic growth.

Castellanos said that they are asking for an adjustment upwards of 30 percent to compensate for loss of purchasing power over the last 10 years. He added that the government’s suggestion that the unions want taxes to increase in order for them to get an adjustment is not true.

“It is important to note that unions have always maintained flexibility in terms of the rate and time frame of implementing the salary adjustment,” he said. “The unions feel that any adjustment that we achieve must not result in an increase in taxes and must be conducive to economic stability and growth in terms of declining foreign debt, increased reserves, surplus and continuous economic growth,” he explained.

Castellanos said that they have estimated that their salary adjustment would only cost the government $22,500,000 to provide an increment for 2013. In 2014, it would cost them $45,000,000 and in 2015 it would cost them $75,000,000.

In terms of affordability and sustainability, Castellanos said that there was tremendous growth in 2012.The government was expecting a growth of three percent, he said, but it is almost at seven percent.

“For 2013 if the rate of growth continues, and government said that it will continue, then we expect the fiscal year 2013-2014 to end in an overall surplus,” he said. “Savings on the Superbond translate according to their [government] figures and to their release are $22 million in 2012 and $66 million in 2013, and for the next four years.”

PSU President Marvin Blades dispelled any notions that the unions are preoccupied only with salary-related matters. He said that of the 23 proposals in the collective bargaining agreement, only three of them are finance-related. The others are focused on improvement in performance and increased efficiency.

“The union is not only discussing salary adjustment; we are looking at making the system more efficient, more productive and in a sense we’re trying to make sure the career pathways are set for public officers,” he said.

BNTU President Luke Palacio said that they have been suggesting possible strategies for ensuring the availability of funds for the salary adjustment, but the government continues to refuse their request and has maintained that if they give the adjustment that the “pie pan will empty.”

“The government is saying that the pie pan will empty, but the question is who’s emptying the pie pan?” he said.

Palacio said that the union members feel they’ve been disrespected by the government in the course of their negotiations. He said that they have been negotiating since 2008 and they didn’t receive any response until 2009. Whenever they did receive a response, it bore such statements as “not supported,” “for further discussion,” and “needs clarification.” He said that the unions have been very professional and supportive in keeping the negotiations open.

“The Belize National Teachers’ Union as the most organized, the most powerful labor movement in this country, will be demonstrating in Belmopan tomorrow to show that we are not satisfied with the disrespect that has been shown to the three unions negotiating with the government of Belize, and I would imagine other workers of this country,” Palacio said. “We want the public support; we want them to understand that this fight is not about more money in the pockets of teachers only: we are negotiating for all persons paid from the public purse.”

The peaceful demonstration will take place tomorrow in Belmopan, starting at 9 a.m. with a parade and then a rally on the steps of the National Assembly. The rally is planned to be over by 3 p.m. Supporters of the demonstration are asked not to bring placards with slander, derogatory terms, or political slogans. Any signs should only represent the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Palacio said that they are expecting a great turnout for the demonstration, at least 2,000 teachers, and that he encourages other individuals to come out in support.

For its part, the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) issued a press release on Friday, January 24, stating that “any Public Sector salary increases awarded in the absence of growth in the Private Sector will ultimately result in increased cost of living through higher taxes which would run the risk of simply negating such salary increases in any event.”

The BCCI wrote in the release that they believe that any increase given to public service workers should not be given on a general basis, but done objectively and based on the performance and efficiency of a public service employee.

“The Chamber supports the notion that any increase in Public Sector wages should be done in an objective and reasonable manner based on evaluated and measurable performance and productivity, focusing on positive results achieved by a public officer in their position as well as identifying areas for improvement when there is less than optimum performance… the Chamber cannot condone the idea of general Public Sector wage increases that may serve to simultaneously reward unproductive or counterproductive work. This would, in the opinion of the Chamber, be a waste of taxpayers’ funds,” stated the release.

Union members disagree with that notion and said that the government has seen economic growth which is sufficient to accommodate a salary adjustment. The Chamber had called a meeting with the NTUCB but they were unable to meet.

The union members said they are concerned about the Chamber’s release.

Reneau said that they are “concerned” about the way the Chamber put out the release; the release made the Chamber seem a bit “self-serving,” he said.

“I am very concerned about the statement that they put out not having the benefit of a conversation with us,” Reneau said. “But over the days to come we will have to sit down and have that discussion with them.”

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