Many in Belize believe that one of the reasons that the present UDP government has not laid off any of the government’s employees or cut their salaries, even though the country is going through its worst economic period in many decades, is because in 1997 a UDP government retrenched 800 employees, and in 1998 the party was crushed at the polls, 26-3.
The Belize Network of NGOs (BNN), however, under the leadership of the 13th senator, Mr. Osmany Salas, put together a team, the BNN Steering Committee (BNNSC), to study the present difficult economic situation in Belize that has been caused mostly by the COVID-19 pandemic, and after their deliberations they produced a document, “National Recovery Strategy”, which they presented to the National Oversight Committee on June 29.
The comprehensive document they produced has a number of recommendations for our economy, healthcare, and education. The BNNSC believes that at this time we should be stockpiling “equipment and personal protective equipment (PPEs)”, that “virtual learning will be the future of education and all systems to support this must be put in place”, and that “the reopening of the Philip Goldson International Airport (PGIA) to visitors and the country to international tourism must be preceded by the establishment of guidelines for tourism facilities, protocols for visitor entry and stay in the country.”
The BNNSC said that “with businesses countrywide either closing or furloughing their staff, GOB gave a commitment to maintaining the existing size of its workforce (which is) an unsustainable commitment considering the drastic reduction in government revenues”, and their first three measures to save the economy calls for us to “reorient public policy towards local production; draft a new National Budget, in consultation with all relevant stakeholders that focuses on recovering the economy and creating new opportunities for prosperity”; and for the government to “cut salaries and wages of public officers to reduce the wage bill.”
This call, to put the public sector employees (and/or their salaries) on the chopping block, has been made previously by both the BCCI (Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry) and the BBB (Belize Business Bureau). In April, the BBB suggested massive cutting of what it calls “non-essential” public sector workers and contract officers, to reduce the wage and pension bill. The BBB said that more of our resources should be directed toward stimulating the private sector.
In May, when the Public Service Union and GoB were in discussion about the withholding of increments, the BCCI called for the government and the public sector to “unite with energy to discover answers for slashing its costs of operation to the barest minimum, as the private sector has been forced to do to survive”, and scolded public sector workers for their “refusal to relinquish their increment (or any other form of compensation) at a time when thousands are losing their jobs completely…” The BCCI said that too many in the debate about our economic survival “are out of touch with the current reality we are universally facing.”
Later, after some negotiation, public sector workers “relinquished their increment.”
It is a fact that the government’s employees are one of very few sectors in the country that haven’t taken a direct economic hit from the pandemic. It is important to understand why they have not been touched in these dire times. Our political parties are known to place their interests far ahead of the interests of the country, and some would argue that the present government is the most “party first” party in government we’ve ever seen, but another reason for the government barely touching the public sector might be because it is good for the economy. After the 1997 retrenchment, the economy further declined, and the present party in government observed that up close. We know that self-preservation factors into the GoB’s decision to borrow to pay its employees, but government also has a practical interest in preventing the economy from tanking even further.
The simple explanation for why the government will try to keep paying its employees during this economic crisis is that if the spending power of this group is curtailed, there will be even fewer persons to purchase the goods and services of our masons, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, food vendors, fisherfolk, farmers, grocers, and so many others. As long as public sector workers spend their earnings on purchasing locally produced goods and services, and don’t stash it away, our economy will not sputter out. Cutting the public sector is a last resort at this time, and the government must do everything in its power to prevent that from happening.
To help us get through this period, the government must go beyond borrowing money and focusing all the rest of its energy on reopening tourism. While the government tries its best to keep its employees on its payroll, which it is doing, the government should also be making an effort to stimulate local production, which it isn’t doing, and it must be promoting a Buy Belize and Employ Belizeans campaign, which it also isn’t doing.
There are Belizeans with savings in the banks and the credit unions, some with quite substantial savings, and at this time, this “rainy day”, they should be investing some of their funds. Belizeans with savings must hire a few people in their neighborhoods, start projects to increase employment, and they should give a little assistance to help out young people who need school materials.
There are major long-term, export-oriented projects we must pursue, particularly in agriculture, and at the same time we must focus on the many things we can do in the short term to sustain us while we ride out the pandemic. With a little push from government, all we need is three months to begin producing all the breakfast cereals we need. With a little push from government we can start putting to good use the parts of fruits, vegetables, fish, and livestock that we don’t use, turning them into fertilizer (compost), food for people and feed for farm animals.
Another thing: if we will save public sector jobs and salaries, the government must stop squandering the people’s money. There are reports of the government expending funds on very suspect purchases and making unnecessary financial agreements with big party operatives. This must come to a halt immediately.