President of the Grenada Union of Teachers (GUT), Lydon Lewis, has warned Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Dr. Keith Mitchell, that he will not be rushed into signing any possible wage freeze deal despite an apparent deadline by government with the Washington-based International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Lewis’ statement came against the backdrop of a national address by the Prime Minister in which he informed the nation about the impending homegrown programme of fiscal adjustments and structural reforms and plans to increase income tax.
Lewis told reporters at a press conference that the GUT will only sign documents when it feels it is ready to do so.
“No one will rush the GUT into signing anything, not the Prime Minister, not anybody else. We would do what we have to do and do it within the passage of time and we feel that we’re ready”, he said.
“So the Prime Minister has his deadlines, fine, we understand that, but the GUT would not be pressured into making any hurried decision by the Prime Minister or anybody”, he added.
The main highlight of the Prime Minister’s speech was the announcement that government will lower the income tax threshold to $36,000 per year, or $3,000 per month as part of its structural adjustment programme.
As part of the changes to income tax, Prime Minister Mitchell disclosed that government will reduce the income tax rate by half to 15% for persons earning less than $60,000 per year.
The rate of 30% will remain for persons earning more than $60,000 per year. These adjustments will take effect from January 2014.
The GUT President is concerned that government’s new tax measures will directly affect the middle class in the country who are already burdened with mortgages, car loans and those persons about to build or purchase land.
Lewis feared that this additional deficit from their income would lead to additional stress for these workers.
“A loss of $200.00 from anyone’s salary in these though economic times is a lot,” he said.
The Prime Minister told the nation that his eight month old administration has been appealing to labour unions to be understanding of the fiscal challenges facing the island and to be moderate in their demands for salary increases especially during the period of the home-grown programme.
In September, Government wrote to all unions requesting that salaries for public officers for the period 2013 to 2016 be settled in time for the presentation of the 2014 Budget in December.
According to Lewis, his biggest concern lies with the utterances of the Prime Minister in the address in which he stated that the success of the programme to be instituted borders on the cooperation of the trade unions.
“My biggest concern in the Prime Minister’s address has to do with the fact that the Prime Minister is attempting, deliberately so, to put the populace against the trade unions by intimating that if we do not accept a paltry offer made by the government it would loose substantively from the IMF and the World Bank”, he said.
“This statement borders on being blackmailed and we cannot as a trade union movement accept that,” he remarked.
The GUT leader stressed that there are other factors that must be taken into consideration when dealing with the IMF, and attempting to blame the trade union movement for Grenada’s possible loss of more than US$100,000.00.
He banded as “grossly unfair” the attacks on the trade unions by Prime Minister Mitchell who controls all 15 seats in Parliament.
“I take serious objection to the statement made by the Prime Minister … we have always worked with government in a sprit of harmony and collaboration,” he said.
Lewis accused PM Mitchell of trying to make the trade union movement look like a “big monster” in hindering the country’s progress.
“I do not accept that”, said Lewis, a teacher by profession.
The outspoken trade union leader urged the Prime Minister to remember that the two sides needed to work together to build the economy, but warned that negotiations can be soured in light of the statements now being made by the Grenadian leader.
“If you want us to work with the government or with the Prime Minister then he has to be more considerate with his utterances because we are currently around the table and all that would do is lead to a situation where there will be serious vexness going forward with the negotiation process,” Lewis said,
“It (his utterance) questions whether or not the unions are willing to go forward in good faith when the Prime Minister intentionally sets up the nation against us … the trade union movement”, he added.
Lewis believes that in the spirit of conciliation something must be said by GUT so that the nation would not form the opinion that the trade unions are to be blamed if the deal signed by government with the IMF fails.
The GUT boss said that they are yet to broach the subject of increase taxes with workers but have taken a principled position to sign off on fringe benefits first before discussing salaries.
Lewis told reporters: “That attempt made by government to get us to sign off on salary and ignore fringe benefits is not going to work, it would not sit well with us. It’s not good industrial relations practice, it’s not good negotiations practice and we would not go that way.
“No one will rush the GUT into signing anything, not the Prime Minister, not anybody else. We would do what we have to do and do it within the passage of time and when we feel that we’re ready.
“So the prime minister has his deadlines, fine we understand that, but the GUT would not be pressured into making any hurried decision by the Prime Minister or anybody”.
In making passing remarks to the Prime Minister’s statement that he was in dialogue with the commercial banks and other lending institutions to be flexible with creditors, Lewis said that he was very skeptical.
Relating to the interest rates in banks, he reminded government that they have no say in that, and pointed out that the state-owned National Insurance Scheme (NIS) interest rate is in some instances higher than local commercial banks.
Lewis said he does not see anything coming out of it except the Banks will issue a statement outlining their positions.