It was supposed to be a day of liberation for the Grenada Trade Union Council (TUC) as it celebrated Labour day with its seven active trade unions in anticipation of “the special announcement” that was to be made by Minister of Labour, Oliver Joseph.
However, the day turned out to be an unhappy one for the senior government minister and Member of Parliament for St. David as workers booed and heckled him as he delivered the traditional Labour Day address on behalf of the employers.
Labour Day was celebrated in Gouyave on Monday under the theme, “Positioning and Empowering Labour to share in the gains of Economic Success for Improved Standard of Living.”
After the street march from Maran, St. John to Cuthbert Peters Park in Gouyave amidst an interesting display of art and costume designs from the trade unions, the workers assembled at the park to await the special announcement solution from the Minister in relation to the restoration of pension for public officers.
The pension issue has been on the line for over 30 years following the decision of the left-leaning 1979-83 People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) of late Prime Minister Maurice Bishop to do away with pension for civil servants on the establishment of the state-run National Insurance Scheme (NIS) under a so-called People’s Law.
In recent months, the ruling New National Party (NNP) government of Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell has been giving workers assurances that the issue would be dealt with as a priority before the next general election.
In the face of no concrete proposals being put on the table, the Public Workers Union (PWU) held a march last month that was supported by the Grenada Union of Teachers (GUT) and the Grenada Technical and Allied Workers Union (GTAWU) to remind the administration about the issue.
The government responded that on May Day, a special announcement will be made in regards to pension.
Minister Joseph came in for a hard time as he took to the podium on Monday to deliver his speech.
He was booed half way through his speech and upon finishing did not receive as much as five claps from the hundreds of workers assembled in the park.
President of the PWU, Rachel Roberts who was chairing the event was heard asking the gathering, “Sisters and Brothers, did the minister come with the solution? The response was “no” and was echoed throughout the entire park.
In his speech, Minister Joseph said the government will solve the problem and restore pensions to state employees in a manner that is sustainable and just.
“I know that there is a mistrust and suspicion of politicians…but on the issue of pension restoration our government has demonstrated in practice that its word is bond. Firstly, we promised removal of Personal Income tax on Severance pay and within three months of taking office, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Labour, Elvin Nimrod declared at May Day 2013 at La Sagesse, that the tax will be abolished and it was done”.
“This government removed Personal Income tax on NIS pension. We removed Personal Income tax on pensions and retiree benefits. This government has delivered on its promise,” he said.
The senior government minister referred to the challenges that are on the table in restoring pension to public officers.
“Some studies have estimated a cost for pension restoration to be within the vicinity of one billion dollars. So, we first have to identify and document all workers who may be entitled. We then have to cost that entitlement. We then have to identify the fiscal resources to pay, not only retroactively but into the future…the question of pension reform, therefore will arise”, he told workers.
“… The road ahead is indeed challenging but if we work together, a mutually agreeable and just solution will be found to bring financial relief to the hundreds of government workers who are now without pension and whose old age security has been compromised”, he said.
PWU President Roberts tore into the Minister after his speech by reminding him that he did not give the answer that public officers were looking for on Labour Day
“We say to the Minister go back and fix it, that is not the answer. We want our pension, and we want our Constitutional pension. Sustainable and just does not define a Constitutional pension. Does restoration and reform define the pension we want? We want Constitutional pension or we believe carnival go start early”, she said.
This ominous warning from the PWU President comes against the backdrop of moves already being made by the Mitchell-led NNP regime to start preparation for the next general elections widely expected before year-end.
The governing party has already announced five of its Caretaker candidates for the poll.
In her own solidarity message given on behalf of public officers, Roberts called for justice for her members who have sacrificed heavily during the last three years of the IMF-supported Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) that brought in sweeping austerity measures.
She issued a warning to the government on negotiations to resume in July on the one-off payment for civil servants.
“Government negotiating team, we call for mercy and justice. NO FRA (Fiscal Responsibility Act) – collective bargaining is our right, we shall not give it up; we are stronger together. Brothers and sisters, we sacrificed, we sacrificed, we over sacrificed. We say $1000 is not enough, we want more but we still say thank you,” she said.
Government is claiming that the FRA that was agreed with the IMF and passed in Parliament prevents the State from giving certain financial commitments to workers.
President of the Commercial and Industrial Workers Union (CIWU), George Mason was militant in his solidarity message to workers on May Day and sent out a warning to employers.
“We have blatant and direct attacks on workers both from government and the private sector. Some companies believe that this is a period to retake what they lost and some workers are made to work like donkeys for sandfly pay. In some work places, workers are abused, cursed, maligned and their only resort is to cry…some do not have union representation so they are treated worst than the door mat.
“One of the notorious ones is a particular supermarket chain with outlets in St. George’s…you know who. The managers use vulgar expletives to workers, which is very disgusting. I want to say to all workers, from Leapers Hill to Lance Aux Epines from Andall to Sandal, we have arrived”, he told the labour day celebrations.
GUT President, Lydon Lewis urged workers to not be fooled by the election pie that is now being put before them.
Lewis said: “Comrades, as we prepare for a difficult period ahead and in the season of stupidness that we’re about to enter, do not be persuaded by the pie in the sky because of the election period. Prepare for a difficult time ahead, prepare to struggle. We say give us better working conditions, give us equality, respect the collective agreement. Teachers, workers all, as we graduate today, let us do our check…we’ve had some minimum salary increases, check. We have had increments, check. We’ve had some permanent appointments, check. We’ve had some one-off payments, check. What is missing workers? Give us our pension, complete the process.”
President of the TUC and President of the GTAWU, Andre Lewis delivered his solidarity message.
“The Grenada Trades Union Council sounds this battle cry to the powers-that-be to honour the court ruling that the government pension must be restored to all public officers or face the necessary consequences. The only discussion that should be taking place right now is how and when the monies owing the workers will be paid.
“For too long the government has taken public officers for a pension less ride, for too long parliamentarians have blundered the coffers of this country… enough is enough,” he said.
Past NNP governments led by Dr. Mitchell have been fingered for engaging in massive borrowings at high interest rates to finance capital projects and to win general elections and in the process building up a massive national debt stock for the island.
The IMF has warned the administration that measures need to be implemented to address the high debt situation ($2.6 billion) and high unemployment especially 50% among the nation’s youth.