If the collective memory of Belizean public service employees was getting sluggish, they were all jolted into keen attention by government’s recent decision to institute a 10% salary cut and 3-year increment freeze for public service employees. And it is not going down well. In fact, there is a clear message from across the spectrum of public service unions, that it will NOT go down; not at this time, unless their demands for certain good governance measures are adequately met. Monday’s strike by the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) is the beginning. Who knows where it will end.
As the government’s agents to carry out its services to the tax-paying public, and often called upon to do voluntary service in times of natural disasters, the large body of public service employees constitutes the last standing bastion of the Belizean work force that still has some semblance of economic security. True, every other aspect of the Belizean economy is under great duress; many are jobless, some on half-pay, and others somewhere in the hand-to-mouth category. Spared so far from the full brunt of the Covid-19-compounded economic storm, public service workers, which include teachers, have up to now been receiving their regular fifteenth-of-the month and end-of-the month salary, and its impact is felt in many other areas of our economy. When they also get a cut, it will have a negative ripple effect all over. But according to Government, the hard, cold financial numbers are saying that cut they must, or face a much worse situation in a few months’ time – massive retrenchment and a major hike in GST.
With no Whistleblower protection law in effect, it is not surprising that few, if any, government employees with inside knowledge have come forward to expose corruption and criminality in their respective government departments. There is always fear of victimization in a system with entrenched cronyism and unrestrained ministerial authority. In the mean streets, survival often involves turning a blind eye to violent crime, as witnesses are all too often eliminated. In the public service, some may suspect wrongdoing, but without the hard evidence, they go about their business, while the few crooked employees facilitate and participate in the hustle with corrupt politicians.
But now that the bitter medicine is about to be administered to all, the unions have sprung to life, and their members are adamant that, while the crooked system has served corrupt politicians and their facilitators well, no way are they going to meekly suffer the pain of salary cuts while the corrupt and crooked system which caused it remains in place.
Back in 2016, the eleven-day BNTU strike got the Dean Barrow-led UDP government to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC); but that was all. Nothing followed. Like an Integrity Commission with “no teeth,” the UNCAC ratification was just a sham. Now, all the unions are calling for good governance, beginning with implementation of the UNCAC. But the BNTU remembers. And now the John Briceño-led PUP government is saying ‘okay’. But that is no longer enough. The unions want concrete legislative action. “Dis ya time da no like befo time.” And they are not budging.
There are ways and means in every government department for a crooked minister to engage in corruption, but none more infamously than in the Lands Department, which former P.M. Barrow admitted was a “hotbed of corruption.” And if any innocent citizen wants an explanation of how it is done, former UDP Foreign Minister Sedi Elrington offered a very good explanation in his page 14 article in The Reporter for Sunday, April 25, 2021, titled, “Taxpayers pay the price.”
As Sedi explained: “The first act of fraud usually occurs when government acquires property from private individuals ostensibly for public purposes. The property is almost always grossly overpriced…. The second fraud occurs when government resells the land. The sale is never at market value. It is always grossly undervalued… Other frauds involve well-connected persons who are granted large amounts of prime property at nominal cost. These people quickly flip these properties making handsome profits… Numerous titles are issued to men of straw as well, with the understanding that they would quickly flip them to known buyers… It is not unusual for government to fraudulently issue Minister’s fiat Grants in respect of privately held land. And, for the courts to order it to pay compensation, amounting to tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars to aggrieved parties… All loss sustained by these fraudulent practices are borne by the Belizean taxpayer. All compensations ordered by the courts to be paid to successful litigants are borne by the taxpayer…”
On page 2 of that same issue of The Reporter, there are the quoted remarks of Prime Minister John Briceño, who was quick to respond to the unions’ cries for good governance and implementation of UNCAC with promises and a plea: “We are working on it, but it takes time to prepare the legislation… We are fully committed to these reforms, but government is running out of cash. Why would we want to cut their salaries for spite? It makes no sense. If we do nothing, we will have a devaluation, and that’s the God honest truth.”
But the unions are not convinced; they have been this way before. The Joint Unions, comprising the BNTU, the PSU, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize and the Association of Public Service Senior Managers, have now been joined in support by the Nurses Association of Belize, the Association of Clinical Laboratory Science and the Belize Medical and Dental Association.
In 2004, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said of corruption, “…This evil phenomenon is found in all countries—big and small, rich and poor—but it is in the developing world that its effects are most destructive. Corruption hurts the poor disproportionately by diverting funds intended for development, undermining a Government’s ability to provide basic services, feeding inequality and injustice and discouraging foreign aid and investment. Corruption is a key element in economic underperformance and a major obstacle to poverty alleviation and development…”
It should now be abundantly clear to P.M. Briceño that, while he may see it as absolutely necessary to implement salary cuts for public service employees, he and his government, with implications also for members of the Opposition party, may have to make a few more good governance commitments, if that is what it will take to keep the business of government running. As NTUCB president Luke Martinez is quoted as saying, on page 35 of the Amandala for Friday, April 23: “… We are not going to move away from the good governance discussion, and if it is that we are going to shut down this country to ensure that the good governance discussions are materialized … that is what is going to happen.”