Wednesday, June 11, 2014. AARON HUMES Reporting: More than five years ago, a specially-constituted negotiating team of senior Government officials, later including a three-man select committee consisting of Ministers Patrick Faber, Senator Charles Gibson and Senator Godwin Hulse, and at times Prime Minister Dean Barrow, and that of the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU), Public Service Union (PSU), and Association of Public Service Senior Managers (APSSM), began negotiating on a collective bargaining agreement.
Twenty-three proposals were tabled, of which eighteen have been mutually agreed on, mainly to do with increases in allowances and benefits to workers, teachers, law enforcement personnel and senior managers.
One of the biggest remaining ones is a salary adjustment. Initially asking for 30% over three years, the unions and the Government of Belize have whittled that figure down, so that teachers and public officers, based on a special formula of 50% of gross revenue, will receive some $22 million more in salary, not including increments, for the next three years.
However, the unions say they want to be absolutely sure of the final product on the adjustment, which is presently estimated at 5.5% but could be more.
Ahead of tomorrow’s meeting with Financial Secretary Joseph Waight, BNTU president Luke Palacio told the press that they are not asking for more than what the formula affords them, but they do want, as PSU president Marvin Blades noted, not to be “shortchanged.”
The unions say they are to meet with their members as well as the National Trade Union Congress of Belize to provide updates.
President of the APSSM, Senior Magistrate Sharon Frazer, notes that they have had their own battles with their membership over perceived betrayals of the workers’ demands, most notably the issue of a floor, and they are not naive to the “fiscal realities” of Belize in the present climate, with notable issues including the ownership of Belize Telemedia Limited and the Ships and Companies Registries to be determined in court which would potentially include compensation.
The unions will be meeting with their membership beginning this week and expect to outline jointly the way forward thereafter. But the salary adjustment and increments are expected to take effect on July 1, retroactive to April 1, not leaving them with much time.
The unions have been given a deadline of June 19 to agree to the entire agreement, even as Prime Minister Dean Barrow waved away their requests to consider five proposals that were outright rejected from the very beginning.
A recent reply of the P.M. to the unions refers to the proposals as “so-called,” suggestive of a dismissive approach, Frazer said.
One of those is health insurance for public officers and teachers payable in a proportion of 90-10 or 70-30 by Government.
But PSU president Marvin Blades says the authorities have not even given the process a chance to play out. Effectively, the proposal has been ruled out for not being financially possible at this time, though the offer is open to discuss at another time.
Frazer notes that for some public officers, insurance is not a luxury, but a necessity, as under the law the Government is liable to take care of its employees.
For instance, she notes, firefighters must be covered by insurance but are not. Another impact is in health clinic bills for public officers and teachers who must pay mostly on their own even for primary care which is supposed to be covered by the Government.
The unions note that they have presented their own solutions to issues with collection of taxes and revenue to help the Government become fiscally stable.
But one particular statement of the Prime Minister’s still has a sour taste for some officers’ mouths. When he said that GOB had “millions and millions” in its coffers, referring to the Petrocaribe funds, he did not make clear, Frazer said, that those monies could not be used to fund the salary increases. It left the unions with the uncomfortable task of trying to placate members who believe that Government was intentionally not being truthful.
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