Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell believes that a compromise can be reached with public sector unions on the vexing issue of pension for civil servants with the state-run National Insurance Scheme (NIS) being asked to play a critical role
The Prime Minister addressed the issue at a press conference last week Thursday – four days before the annual Labour Day celebrations on the island.
He told reporters it is time for government to put to rest the issue of pension for public workers.
PM Mitchell stated that with an estimated cost of over one billion dollars due in pension benefits for workers, there must be a forward approach taken by all concerned to ensure that public officers receive their pensions.
However, he admitted that this will be a difficult task to achieve in the short-term.
Public officers who joined the service after 1983 were prevented from getting a pension following the establishment of the state-run National Insurance Scheme (NIS) by the left-leaning People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) of late Prime Minister Maurice Bishop.
A high court judge ruled about three years ago that the PRG law was unconstitutional, null and void and that public officers were entitled to receive a pension.
Prime Minister Mitchell sought to play down recent statements made by public sector union leaders for government to start paying the pensions due to its membership.
“I know my friends in the Trade Union movement know better …a country is not just based on those who work within the public sector, everybody else make contributions”, he said.
“… Even the little farmer out there who has to buy the sugar and the rice at the same price – we taxed him – while he is earning little or nothing to pay public servants, to pay people like me. So, therefore, I cannot be taking every cent of government to protect one group of workers in the country”, he told reporters.
PM Mitchell added: “I think our brothers and sisters in the Trade Union movement clearly understand this, and I know they are saying that but they don’t expect that government will find over a billion dollars or so. For that to happen we would have to put a 50% tax on every salary, every dollar somebody makes in the country to be able to do that and they themselves wouldn’t want this”.
According to PM Mitchell, the solution to the pension issue lies within a compromise arrangement in which everyone must play a role.
“It is clear that we must have compromise. So, what we have today in the discussion is a forward approach and what would happen from now but clearly the unions want to talk about what happened before…
“…I have seen workers literally go to the great beyond not being able (to) buy basic medicine after serving. The only problem I have is the talk about we want money now and we want our settlement right, right now.
“…I know it’s not there (the money) so we want to work out a compromise and it is felt that the compromise must be a combination between the NIS because we are paying the NIS for those workers, so that has to be taken into consideration – government’s contribution and to some extent workers at this present time now. That’s the only how we can get the money.
PM Mitchell acknowledged that government will have to make the biggest compromise on the pensions for civil servants.
“Now it means therefore … government has to give … clearly the bigger portion. So, what may happen, government may say well I’ll pay this amount now – I’m just giving you a broad concept – we will pay this now, we will give you a 20 year bond or 10 year bond for the rest and maybe look at some other kinds of compensation for the last portion,” he remarked.
Dr. Mitchell stressed that his own government has started the process of restoring pension to public officers citing four areas in which taxes were lifted in recent times.
“Some who are making noises today, who give the impression as if the government doesn’t have a heart when in fact is this government while its symbol is not a heart that has demonstrated it does have a heart.
“It has decided that while we’re in the house, we should always have a heart to ensure that we can do what we have to do to promote the welfare of all citizens throughout the length and breadth of our country (and) Carriacou and Petite Martinique.
“…Every promise that has been made to workers by this government has been kept. We have worked most diligently to improve the lives of the workers – one, removal of Personal income tax from severance pay, removal of Personal income tax on NIS pensions, removal of Personal income tax from pensions and retiring benefits, reducing employment rate from 40% to 28%,” he explained.
The Prime Minister reiterated that before he bows out from frontline politics in government, he would like to bring an end to the pension issue.
Dr. Mitchell has been the longest serving Prime Minister of the country, and at the helm for 17 of the 34 years since the pension issue with the island’s estimated 5, 500 civil servants.
The pension issue is expected to surface in the upcoming general elections in which PM Mitchell is seeking a fifth term in office.