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Raffique Shah


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Riding into the valley of death

By Raffique Shah
Oct 31, 2010

There are few reasons why the People's Partnership Government should portray itself as a victim of circumstances the way the NAR did in 1986. Back then, Ray Robinson and his "party of parties" inherited an almost empty treasury. The George Chambers government had faced declining oil prices from OPEC-driven "highs" in 1973-77 to "lows" by the time Chambers assumed power in 1981.

For those with short memories, and many who were not around when the NAR obliterated the PNM by a 33-3 margin of victory, the new government had to hasten to the IMF to rescue the sinking economy. Among measures the IMF demanded, which the NAR complied with, were drastic cuts in public expenditure.

These included the withholding public servants' COLA from 1987, and imposing a 10 per cent cut in their salaries in 1988. It cut expenditure on social programmes, unemployment rose, as did the cost of living. Besides the split in the NAR, the party faced discontent among those who had supported it in 1986. Mass strikes and demonstrations ensued, culminating a successful "day of resistance" in March 1989.

The rest is history. In fact, by 1991, the NAR was history. The People's Partnership is somewhat different in structure to what the NAR was. Also, the circumstances in which it beat the PNM were quite different. Chambers paid the price for Eric Williams' oil-boom profligacy. Patrick Manning drove the nails into the PNM's coffin by a combination of reckless spending and gross insensitivity to public opinion.

When the People's Partnership took power, funds in the Treasury were low. But it was by no stretch empty. Our foreign reserves and money in the HSF were solid. Our debt to GDP ratio was manageable. And although revenues had dropped significantly, mainly because of low gas and oil prices, they remain at reasonable levels to allow the new government some breathing space.

To put it bluntly, the People's Partnership did not need to cut back on social programmes. If anything, it has increased expenditure in these areas, created new programmes—most justified. It added new features that have not met with universal acceptance (like the "laptops for every child"). The Government has also been very generous to religious and cultural organisations, and it has paid out more money to flood victims than the PNM did in all its years in government.

However, when it comes to treating with public sector workers, it has signalled that it's "wuss dan de PNM". Incomplete negotiations between the PSA (and other public sector representative unions) and government is something the People's Partnership inherited. Pennelope Beckles and Amery Browne should bear that in mind when they march with protesting public servants. The PNM had years of plenty during which it ought to have settled with all public sector unions.

Instead, it hid behind the obstructionist PSNC and failed to offer government employees anything. It also blocked new industrial agreements at enterprises like TSTT and First Citizen's Bank (to name two state-controlled enterprises). So the PNM cannot now gloat over the fire the People's Partnership Government faces.

But these factors do not absolve the People's Partnership government from its responsibility to right the wrongs the PNM inflicted on public sector employees. There is no justification for offering the nation's public servants a one per cent increase in salaries over a three-year period. Over this period, all MPs and senators received more than 50 per cent increase in their emoluments. Senior managers in many State enterprises and institutions awarded themselves generous increases or bonuses, or both.

Clearly, something is amiss here. I am not suggesting that the PSA get all that it's asking for. I firmly believe, too, that two additions should be made in any new agreement. First, the increases awarded should be graded, with the lower-paid workers enjoying a higher percentage than those at the upper end. Secondly, all industrial agreements henceforth should contain productivity and performance clauses.

Too many workers in the public sector hide behind strong job-security while they short-change the public they are paid to serve. From police officers to teachers, and public officers who interface with citizens seeking their services, there is inexcusable indifference to service and productivity.

There is nothing wrong with government demanding productivity clauses in new agreements with public sector workers. Citizens deserve value for money. And avenues for firing (not suspending with full pay!) unproductive or hostile workers should form part of the new concordat.

Having argued for some equity in whatever settlements they arrive at, I add that both government (as the biggest employer in the country) and trade unions must be prepared to meet the challenges that will elevate us from a Third World mentality to First World performance.

The government must start by showing its bona fides, by having the CPO make a decent offer to the PSA. There will be give-and-take. But in the end, public sector workers must not feel they are the "bastards" of a skewed system that does not recognise their contributions to country.

If it fails to budge, and should Finance Minister Winston Dookeran stick to his one-per-cent gun, then the government may face dire consequences. Governments have fallen on less contentious issues. The People's Partnership government must not feel it is invincible, or immovable. That's precisely what Manning thought of his regime five months ago.

It's an illusion that misled many in power to ride, eyes wide open, into the Valley of Death.

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