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GoB and the retirement age

EditorialGoB and the retirement age

In his budget presentation for fiscal year 2023/24, Prime Minister John Briceño spoke of a recommendation by the IMF, for GoB to raise the current retirement age from 55 to 65. Ten is no small number of years, and it’s possible such a change might be greeted with some blowback. The PM said that in most of the region the voluntary retirement age is 60 years, and the mandatory retirement age is 65 years. A report in the Amandala, in 2016, said the only country in the Caribbean with the similarly low retirement age of 55, is Haiti.

The story here is about pensions, and about maximizing our human resources. The PM said people in Belize are living longer. The average life expectancy of Belizeans is now nearly 73 years, four years more than it was in 2000. If people live longer, they have more retirement years, more years during which they have to be paid pensions. There is some concern that the SARS-Cov-2 virus, the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic, could cut into longevity, but governments across the world are acting on data they have presently.

In respect to capacity, the consensus is that retiring people at 55 is wasteful. The average age of new UK prime ministers and US presidents is reportedly 53 and 55, respectively. The Amandala report said: “Alarmingly, in academia, the system is purging itself of some of the most valuable, the most gifted, the most qualified and most experienced faculty/professors because they fall within the mandatory public service retirement age of 55 years.” It noted, though, that a 2010 memo from the Ministry of Education had declared that teachers could work until they were 60, once they conveyed their intent in writing in advance. But that wasn’t a given.

An increase in the retirement age would impact many areas. The government would steer away from financial stress down the road; individuals who want to sail off into the sunset early would be unhappy; and there would be decreased employment opportunities in the public service for young graduates.

The people in France protested in the streets earlier this year when their government upped the retirement age, from 62 to 64.

CNN’s Joseph Attaman reported that in 1995 weeks-long protests in France forced the government to “abandon plans to reform public sector pensions” and in 2010 people took to the streets to protest raising the retirement age to 62. Attaman’s report said that in respect to the recent standoff, the labor minister said that without pension reform the deficit in France would reach $13 billion annually by 2027, and asked: “Do they imagine that if we pause the reforms, we will pause the deficit?” And the budget minister said: “If we don’t do [the reforms] today, we will have to do much more brutal measures in the future.”

The exercise might not be all that contentious in Belize. A 2020 report by BBN staff said the PSU had suggested that GOB extend the retirement age for public officers from 55 to 60 years, as a cost-saving measure to help the country recover “from the economic downturn resulting from Covid-19.” The PSU said the change should be done in phases.

Waterloo proposes to grab control of the Tribunal

After Waterloo exercised its right to appeal a second rejection of its cruise terminal proposal by the Department of the Environment (DOE), the relevant minister, Hon. Orlando Habet, caused to come into being a 3-member Appeal Tribunal which has the power to confirm, vary, amend or alter the decisions made by the DOE.

The Environmental Protection Act Chapter 328, Revised Edition 2003, left it all to the minister. The law said “the Minister may appoint a Tribunal to hear and determine” an appeal, and the minister’s decision was final. The law was amended in 2007, in a time when the people of Belize had, after taking to the streets, wrested away some power from the then government (PUP). There were changes in the management structure of the SSB, and limits placed on government spending without House of Representatives approval. That year, the authority of the environment minister under the Environmental Protection Act decreased.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (Amendment) Regulations 2007, at Section 27A (1) says that in response to an appeal the Minister shall cause to come into being a Tribunal, consisting of a member appointed by the Judiciary, who shall be the Chair; an environmentalist appointed by the Minister; and the private sector Senator. No DOE personnel or NEAC member could be on the Tribunal, nor could any “individual involved or associated with the project in question.”

Waterloo has expressed dissatisfaction with two members of the Tribunal. Waterloo quite likely had hoped that the present business senator would be a member of the Tribunal. But the GoB passed a Statutory Instrument that bypassed the business senator, Hon. Kevin Herrera, after he didn’t step down when it was pointed out that he was in a compromised position. The senator’s brother, Mr. Allan Herrera, is a lead consultant for Waterloo. Mr. Allan Herrera might be the only environmentalist in our country who didn’t think it flagrant, near sacrilegious, to dump 6.5 million cubic meters of dredged material — silt, between English Caye and the Turneffe Atoll.

Kevin Herrera is a member of the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), and he takes the title “Hon.” as representative of both the BCCI and the Belize Business Bureau (BBB) in the Senate. The BCCI had “voted” in favor of the Waterloo project, after all the other members of the NEAC had voted against it. How the BCCI went about gathering support for its position isn’t known, but the BBB has expressed strong reservations about a number of aspects of the Waterloo proposal.

Waterloo has found fault with Mrs. Lucy Fleming, a former president of the Belize Tourism Industry Association, whom the Minister chose to replace Senator Herrera. Mrs. Fleming expressed appreciation for her selection, but has declined participation on the Tribunal, citing other pressing responsibilities. Waterloo has found fault with Professor Terrence Hughes, a senior environmentalist chosen by the Minister. The Minister is being charged with making his selections in “bad faith.” Waterloo is challenging the selections in court.

With this interest to influence who sits on the Tribunal, Waterloo is seeking to dictate to our government and people, what is good for us. Are Belizeans backward because they are concerned about their reef, about diluting their tourism product, about the share they would get, about a sewer lagoon being the first thing visitors see when they come to Belize?

Waterloo hasn’t distinguished itself in our country. A couple years ago, the head of the group declared that improving the cargo section at the Port of Belize Ltd. (PBL) would only be feasible if a channel and wharf that could accommodate the world’s largest cruise ships were created. While Waterloo was in the business of threatening the government and people with lawsuits, making outrageous charges against local environmentalists who were not on board with its proposal, and making life miserable for its workers, Port of Big Creek went ahead and improved its cargo facilities, and took away PBL’s lucrative sugar contract.

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