It is understandable that some Belizeans who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic might harbor some envy of the workers on the public payroll who have been promised that the government will borrow, until it cannot borrow anymore, to meet their “15th and ending” salaries.
This is a time when we are all called upon to make sacrifices for our country, to ensure we survive, and the Government of Belize has asked its employees to contribute to the effort by foregoing their annual increments. Relative to the shortfall in revenue which has occurred because of the pandemic, what the government’s employees have been asked to give up isn’t much. However, the unions for the public servants and the teachers have not agreed to the request from government. We understand that they want the increments to be deferred for a few years.
The Prime Minister has said that his government is not budging from its position, and if he has to, he will ask the Governor General to amend the Public Service Regulations to give the government the power to separate the government’s employees from their increments.
The Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) expressed disgust about the impasse in a press release last week. The BCCI said that it finds the increment debate unacceptable, that government shouldn’t be contemplating any additional debt at this time, and that the people involved in the debate are out of touch with our current reality.
The BBCI said it wants the government and the public sector to work to slash costs for its operation to the barest minimum, as the private sector has done, and the organization pointed out that the social partners, including the BCCI, have made many suggestions to cut costs in the public sector, and none or few were implemented.
Contrary to what the BCCI is saying, the unions are fully in touch with our current reality, which is that political parties in Belize, when they get control of government, will do everything under the sun to protect the interests of the party. The unions are holding on to a bargaining chip; they know it will be like pulling teeth for the government to go to the Governor General to have the Public Service Regulations amended.
We are not aware that the position of the PSU and the BNTU on the increments is fixed in stone. They might believe that if they give up the increments without a fuss, the government would soon come asking for more. What we are 100% aware of is that the unions are saying that the government should address certain cost-saving recommendations that have been on the table for a number of years, before they pressure the government’s employees.
That “more” that the government could come for would be in the areas of salary reduction, and/or retrenchment. The government is fully aware of the political cost of such measures. No one in Belize, least of all the United Democratic Party, forgets what unfolded after a UDP government retrenched 800 public officers in 1997. The party tanked, and the country’s economy, which was in recession, regressed even further.
Retrenchment or major cutting of the salaries of government’s employees would come with a severe economic cost. If the buying power of this group is cut, the businesses the BCCI champions will suffer more than they are now.
It must be pointed out that apart from supporting local businesses, the employees of the government are also one of the largest contributors to the tax base that runs this country.
The government’s salaries and pensions bill is reported to be in the region of $40 million per month, but the government takes back a lot in taxes. Most of the government’s employees don’t make enough to pay income tax, but they, like the rest of us, pay 12.5% GST when they go to the store, and all the other taxes the government charges on goods and services are passed on to them by businesses. The tax on fuel exceeds the landing cost of the product, and this group pays its fair share of that too.
The BCCI is right that there are many things we need to address in the public sector. However, downsizing the public service is not one of them at this time, and we shouldn’t be too eager to go after salaries either.
It is a terrible pity that our situation is so desperate. The battle against COVID-19 might have barely begun, and we are broke already. The Prime Minister says it doesn’t make sense to talk about the past, and unfortunately it is true that we can’t get back what we have squandered. We are broke, and we must borrow until we cannot borrow anymore, to prevent our economy from collapsing.
What the BCCI needs to do is join forces with the PSU and the BNTU, not to pressure the government so that they fall, but so that they cut out profligacy. We must move, not hastily, but with determination, toward making the public service more efficient, and toward cutting dishonesty out of government.
Immediately, we must redeploy our forces in the public service so that we get more from our investment in them. Not everyone is eager to be in the private sector; scientists generally prefer research, so let’s not ask that scientists in the public service be put out to fend for themselves. That would be wastage of valuable talent. We must start with the highly trained public officers who work in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. They must be pushed to do more for our farmers and fisher folk.
On Friday we must look at the call by Mr. Nigel Petillo, of the Belize Grassroots Youth Empowerment Association (BGYEA), for re-distribution of land at Mile 44. Today we will look at a previous project by Mr. Petillo and his group, BGYEA, at Harmonyville, which has been neglected by government. The government has the resources to put in roads, build a water storage tank and put in the mains for irrigation purposes. Some of the talent in the Ministry of Agriculture should be redeployed there, to impart their vast technical skills to the group’s members so that they become more productive.
All those fine economists working with the public service, some of them should be redeployed to gather information and determine what produce from our sea and land can most feasibly be processed and stored, and the government and business sector should inject capital so that we move posthaste to reduce the heavy importation of foreign foods. There are many fine talents in the employ of the government and people of Belize that just need redirecting, to serve a Belize that is focused on producing wealth and distributing it so that no one is left behind.
While we fight off COVID-19, we should focus on a hundred days to turn this ship around, point our bow in the right direction and start paddling. To that end we need the BCCI to work along with the unions, to pressure the government into making the decisions that serve our country.