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Raffique Shah


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The Last Monarch

By Raffique Shah
June 10, 2012

I make no pretences to "being young" or "feeling young" at age 66. I never dyed my hair—my moustache turned grey before I was 50—and other than leading a reasonably healthy lifestyle, daily exercising included, I have taken the aging process in stride. I no longer walk as briskly as I did a few years ago, and one or two challenges that go with the age-turf have set in, none life threatening, thankfully. Also, I am still able to work, albeit at a reduced level (my choice), hence take care of my family.

I should add that I know many people much older than I who remain very active. As someone who was pivotal to re-igniting distance running in this country back in 1983, I am all too familiar with Lynette "Granny" Luces (84 years old, I believe) and scores of septuagenarians and octogenarians like her who keep on running, all power to them. Thousands more, age 60 and over, continue working, whether it's in offices or doing manual labour, mostly out of necessity.

The harsh reality of aging, though, is that most older people do not enjoy good health, nor do they have incomes that allow them to lead reasonably comfortable lives. I would hazard a guess that 50 per cent of persons older than 60 are stricken with ill health and depend only on pensions for survival. The more fortunate among them are retirees from the public services or private enterprise who enjoy work-related pensions of $5,000 a month or more, and National Insurance pensions, recently upgraded to $3,000 a month. In both instances they would have contributed to pension schemes all their working lives. A small percentage of retirees would have privately funded annuities to bolster their benefits.

The vast majority of retirees have no such luck. Tens of thousands of government daily-rated workers and most employees of State enterprises (other than a select few in the oil, gas and chemicals sectors) and private firms, after decades of service, receive, at best, a lump sum (gratuity) but no pension. Tens of thousands more, who spent their working lives employed with contractors or in the services sector, retire with a handshake and their NIS pensions—if their employers adhered to the law.

In contrast, elected parliamentarians who make most of the laws and regulations that dictate the pittances that the poor must live with as they grow older, enjoy pensions (from age 55) for serving five years or more in the House of Representatives. There is a graded system, and it is a contributory scheme. But it is very generous to MPs who have served ten years or more, and even better for those who held ministerial appointments. Prime Ministers, of course, enjoy their full salaries as pension, as well as medical and other benefits.

Having painted this elaborate backdrop, I hope readers would understand why I was angry like a raging bull last week when I read that old age pensioners who are in receipt of NIS pensions would now lose out on the former in some rather complicated formulae that, I'm sure, not even Glenn "Hamper Man" Ramadharsingh understands. How this government justifies taking away a few morsels of food from the mouths of helpless old people defies rationale. It flies in the face of everything the People's Partnership held out to the masses during the elections of 2010. It is gross abuse of the aged and the infirm.

Although they would deny it now, I recall spokespersons for the Partnership saying on the campaign trail that if elected, they would remove the Senior Citizens' Grant (which was discretionary) and restore the Old Age Pension. They further promised that they would lower the pensionable age to 60, and stated that everyone over 60 would receive a monthly pension of $3,000. Tell me that I am lying.

Further, in the Partnership's "120 days action plan", point 17 states, "We will replace the Senior Citizens' Grant with Old Age Pension and increase it to $3,000." The new government did that, except that not everyone over age 65 (far less 60) was eligible for what in effect remained a grant, and not everyone got $3,000. So what might have appeared to be a long overdue and welcome change for senior citizens continued being the social welfare maze it was under the PNM.

I argue, too, that the NIS is a contributory and compulsory scheme, the benefits of which are an entitlement. Employees must know that added to their contributions, their employers pay twice as much. Employers face stiff penalties if they fail to deduct employees' contributions or remit both to the Board. Moreover, before the NIB increased the pension from last March, actuaries approved the $3,000 on the strict condition that increased contributions would come from new "classes" employees.

In other words, the increased NIS pension does not cost government one dollar: increased and expanded contributions pay for it. There is, therefore, no basis for making sleight-of-hand reductions to old people's already paltry pensions by pointing to NIS pensions. Government has inflicted a grave injustice on pensioners by this convoluted scheme. Really, how could they even think of robbing these poor old people? I refuse to believe that a Cabinet that includes Prakash Ramadhar, Errol McLeod and Verna St Rose Greaves considered the proposed cutbacks and approved them.

If this daylight robbery of the aged, the infirm, the most vulnerable in society, is not reversed forthwith, then I would conclude that this government has lost its soul. Declaration: I have never applied for Old Age Pension and will not do that for as long as I have the strength and energy to earn a living.

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