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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

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As has become customary, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves delivered a hefty package of 14 announcements, two short of a metaphoric pound, during his Independence Day address to the nation.

This year’s address took on a particular significance, in the context of impending general elections, especially in relation to public sector workers, who were no doubt listening carefully, given demands, over the last few years, by their unions for salary increases.{{more}}

The increases announced by the Prime Minister, inclusive of ‘backpay’ for 2015, validated Gonsalves’ long-held position that he understood the situation of public employees, was in sympathy with their demands and was willing to sit down and work out a solution within the ability of the state to pay. In the circumstances, public servants cannot be too unhappy with the package announced last Tuesday.

Generally, in spite of the organizational weaknesses of the public sector unions, their members are in a far more favourable situation than daily-paid workers, who have to rely on Wages Councils for recommendations for wage increases. It is therefore heartening to hear that these workers can expect a positive adjustment in the new year. They not only deserve it, they are in critical need of living wages.

One must also welcome the announcement that nursing assistants, who today provide a far higher level of service than originally envisaged, will be made pensionable. This is long overdue. The irony is that this upgrade is bound to lead to similar demands by other public servants in similar grades, office attendants for example. The percentage of our population in the elderly category is steadily growing and their after-work welfare needs to be addressed.

But there is a cost to all this and it has to be managed prudently if we are not to get into trouble, where public finances are concerned. Dr Gonsalves has pledged to look at increasing NIS pensions. Public servants are in a relatively privileged position, given their entitlement to both a government pension and one from the NIS. Most of us are not so fortunate.

It is instructive to look at the situation in Grenada where the government now faces the spectre of having to find $1 billion to pay public servants after a court ruling that restored their right to such state-pensions, abolished by the Maurice Bishop government in 1983. A delicate road to trod.

There will be some amongst us who will dub the “14 announcements” as mere electioneering, but it is the classic situation of “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”. What matters most is whether the salary enhancements benefit those who need it most and if these increases are sustainable over the long haul without negatively impacting the health of the finances of the Government.

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