Belize has never delivered for the masses of her citizens, and we were in deep recession when the pandemic delivered a severe blow in March last year. In the private sector, thousands of our people suffered massive pay cuts, and thousands more lost their jobs and ended up on the pantry lines alongside the thousands who are perennially left out of the economy. In the public sector, however, the previous government (UDP) decided to borrow to “make payroll”, so the employees of the government have continued taking home the same salary they were making prior to the pandemic.
There were loud calls for the government’s employees to share in the financial pain, the loudest coming from the business organizations, the BCCI and the BBB, but the previous government didn’t budge — one, for political reasons, since there was a general election just up ahead; and two, because cutting the salaries of government employees would cause the economy to contract even further.
A new government (PUP) took over in November last year, and in preparing the budget for fiscal year 2021/2022 it announced that the nation’s finances are in such a bad state, that government expenditure would have to be cut in a number of areas, including the salaries of its employees. The government’s employees responded that they would resist the salary cuts, with the justification that cutting their salaries will worsen the economy; that the government can find the money to meet their salaries if it cuts out corruption and nepotism, and improves tax collection; and that they can’t afford it.
Many Belizeans question the reluctance of government employees to give up a portion of their salaries at a time when Belize absolutely is on the brink of complete financial failure.
The fact is that the majority of the government’s employees are barely surviving on the salaries they are making right now. Inflation is higher than declared by the SIB, because the majority of imported goods are ignored when they make their assessment of the cost of living. The prices of imported goods increase with almost every shipment, and thus the real situation is that inflation has outpaced the growth in the salaries of government employees over the past two decades.
As the saying goes, who feels it knows it. Thousands of public employees on the lower pay scales are living pay check to pay check (although the government has said it will exclude those making the lowest salaries —less than $250 weekly — from the pay cut), hence the strong resistance they are putting up to the government’s decision to proceed with a cut in their salaries and freezing of their increments for three years. It isn’t that employees of the government don’t know the enormity of the country’s economic shortfall; it’s that they were feeling the pinch before the pandemic, and things are worse now.
Many of our public employees are extremely talented and dedicated, but they are stymied by a system that awards promotions based on loyalty to the party in power, not merit. The system is ruled by fear, fear of the ruling party and their CEOs, and no less than the president of the APSSM, Ms. Sharon Fraser, admitted on the Krem WuB morning show that many of her colleagues are cowed by their bosses. Ms. Fraser didn’t mention that some high-level officers in the public service actually facilitated corrupt acts by dishonest leaders, that some got on the train to make their deposits at the bank.
Public employees recoil when they look at how much our leaders have wronged this country. The PUP condemned the second Manuel Esquivel UDP government for its lack of competence, and in 1998 the PUP won an overwhelming mandate on a promise to grow our economy. Some of the methods the PUP used to deliver on its promise were questionable, but what really riled up the people were the deals that were made to enrich a few individuals at the top of the party.
The UDP condemned the Said Musa PUP governments of 1998 to 2008 for their corruption, and the UDP won an overwhelming mandate from the people on its promise to chop out corruption, improve governance. The UDP governments of Dean Barrow weren’t always prudent or visionary between 2008 and 2020, but what really riled up the people was that some of their leaders were the most corrupt Belize has ever seen.
A lot of Belizeans have become very greedy. They are following in the footsteps of the country’s leaders. Some Belizeans are smiling in our faces while right in front of us they are taking us to the cleaners. In the midst of negotiations between the Unions and GoB we learned of a company that got prime cay land for around $27,000 a couple days before a general election, from a government the people swept out of office because it was corrupt. The land was taken away by the new government, the company went to court, and a little over ten years later that company won $5.6 million, which went from the national treasury to their pockets.
A lot of Belizeans have become very cynical. They have seen so, so many deals made by our leaders that are bad for Belize. Our leaders sold majority shares in our flagship company, BTL, and it cost us millions; they lost our national port, Port of Belize, and that cost us millions; they overspent to get back BTL, and handled it as though it was a family or party asset, and cost us millions; they bloated contracts and abused the system to acquire our assets, and cost us millions.
Now our country is flat broke, and to save our financial stability our government insists it has to cut the salaries of its employees. The government has promised that as soon as the economy turns around it will revisit the salaries and increments of its employees, but if the pandemic lingers, that will be delayed, and if the government doesn’t put in the measures to halt corruption, and establish good governance, the remuneration for its employees might never be restored, and our marginalized citizens will remain deprived.
In the end, government of the people, by the people, for the people has the mandate to do what it feels necessary to save us from complete financial failure. Whatever the government does, the unions and the media, all Belizeans, must keep the pressure on so it moves with energy to deliver on its good governance promises. There can be no “todos ganamos” in a corrupt, poorly governed country.