The new People’s United Party (PUP) administration has been reducing its staff since it came into office, and while the main opposition party is saying that the workers who are losing their jobs are their people, the bigger story is that the new government is under extreme duress due to the dreadful state of the economy. These are very hard times we are living in, and all we can demand is that our people are treated with respect, and that heads of families who are terminated are immediately placed on the list for government assistance.
Back in April and May of last year, just after the pandemic began impacting Belize, our two most prominent business organizations, the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) and the Belize Business Bureau (BBB), began calling for the Government of Belize to do something about its high wage bill.
The BBB suggested massive cutting of what it called “non-essential” public sector workers and contract officers, and after the Public Service Union (PSU) didn’t immediately agree with the government that government workers should relinquish their increments for a period, the BCCI said that many in the debate about our economic survival were “out of touch with the current reality we are universally facing.” The PSU had balked when the Government of Belize asked them to give up the increments, and was not willing to accept such a move until, it said, government had addressed its many wasteful practices.
The Belize Network of NGOs (BNN) also joined the call for government employees to share in the pain which it said Belizeans in the private sector were experiencing. On June 29 the BNN Steering Committee (BNNSC), after studying the economic crisis, presented a document which included a call for government to “cut salaries and wages of public officers to reduce the wage bill.”
There was no need to prompt the quasi-government body, the Belize Tourist Board (BTB), to action. At almost the very moment the cruise ship operators announced in March that they would stop coming to Belize, the management of the BTB jettisoned about 50% of their staff.
Even with the nation’s financial resources drying up, the previous government held on to its workers, with Prime Minister Barrow promising to borrow until the country could borrow no more to meet the monthly wage bill. When the PUP got into office, the new administration said Barrow’s United Democratic Party (UDP) government had been borrowing close to $1 million per day to keep the country running.
There are a number of reasons why the UDP government did not make the cuts that its business and NGO partners had called for. The first is that governments operating within the capitalist system recognize that in times of economic crisis they need to spend, invest in the economy. Cutting wages or retrenching workers causes a stressed economy to contract even more.
The second is that 2020 was an election year, and the worst defeat the UDP had experienced at the polls, prior to the debacle of November 11, 2020, was in 1998, one year after they had retrenched 800 workers from the public service.
The UDP government was also operating on a prayer that Covid-19 would lose its punch as H1N1 (swine flu) had done ten or so years previously, and tourism, which accounted for almost 50% of Belize’s economy prior to the pandemic, would rebound.
That prayer hasn’t been answered. There is hope that new vaccines that have been developed will soon save us, the soonest being near the end of this year, but few expect that in the next tourist season, 2021/2022, the industry will bring in income that approaches earnings in previous years.
Today we find ourselves in the worst economic state any of us can recall. Hon. Chris Coye, Senator and Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance, Economic Development & Investment, told the Senate last week that the income of Belize has shrunk by 17% and the national debt is unsustainable. Hon. Coye said that the last labor survey showed that at this time 130 to 140 thousand Belizeans, roughly 68% of our labor force, are looking for work.
The mighty US government drew from its great reserves and paid its citizens, to keep them afloat until better days come. Little Belize did the same, drawing from its limited reserves and borrowing heavily to provide for its citizens who had lost their jobs during the pandemic.
When the pandemic began, Belizean economist/engineer, Mr. Bill Lindo, advised the government that those who receive assistance should provide labor for the checks they received. He called on the government to increase hospital capacity and build small factories that would employ our people to produce goods we need to survive.
The previous government should have encouraged everyone who had access to a farm plot or a very big yard to become engaged in some type of farming, of crops or fish, and this should have been done in tandem with the government unleashing its entire arsenal of equipment and trained personnel into the field.
Earlier this week, on the WuB morning show, we learned that one of our most inspiring citizens, Mr. Dara Robinson, had been working a farm plot to provide food for his family and his feeding program, and he was hindered because he had sown seeds given to him by a Good Samaritan, and the seeds had either expired, or were from a plant variety that doesn’t do well in Belize. If the government had been fully invested in helping our people, the brother would not have suffered this setback.
Come the end of March, the beginning of the next fiscal year, everyone expects that there will be wage cuts and maybe more terminations. Our economy is in a terrible state, and not even an arrangement with the IMF will save us from pain. In fact, it could be worse for us if we go to the IMF, because in our best times their advice was for our governments to severely cut the wage bill.
The minority party in the House of Representatives will bleat whenever the new government takes painful measures to stabilize or energize our economic engines, and maybe that is their duty, but they know the state of the economy they left behind.
It is for sure that the Belizean people and media must check the new government every step of the way, for sure that we must insist that all the good governance practices they promised to restore are implemented expeditiously, but we also have to be supportive as we go through this period. We are living in very, very tough times.