Guyana: The Public servants’ 7% increase unilaterally imposed by Government – Opinion

Stabroek News

Stabroek News Editorial – November 21, 2021

It was only the week before last when President Irfaan Ali told the nation that discussions were ongoing on wages and salary increases for public servants, and that an announcement would be made very soon. Well an announcement was made not long after that by Finance Minister Ashni Singh, who said that government would be paying an across-the-board increase of 7% to public servants, teachers, members of the Disciplined Services, constitutional office-holders and government pensioners. He went on to say that it would not be tax free but that it would be retroactive to January 1, 2021. Furthermore, it would be paid with salaries for December, “and in time for the festive season.”           

This really has come as no surprise; governments for years have been bypassing the Guyana Public Service Union and imposing unilateral wage increases without bothering to engage in negotiations. It might be noted that the APNU+AFC government took the same approach. They do so fairly secure in the knowledge that in the first place the recipients of these increases are not going to object at Christmas time, and in the second, that President Patrick Yarde of the GPSU is unlikely to be able to bring anyone out on strike at any time in the normal course of events.

Mr Yarde has been entrenched as the head of the union for many decades, and to date those who sought to replace him have not succeeded. Nevertheless, his standing with members has not appeared to fully recover since the 57-day public service union strike of 1999. In addition, GPSU members are less militant than they were when the PPP/C first acceded to office, and after the disappointment of the coalition government, most are more interested in cost-of-living issues, than with union-based confrontation.

The problem with Freedom House is that it stands with its back to the future and its face to the past. And in its eyes, not only do the bulk of the public servants have PNC proclivities, but the GPSU is unequivocally an opposition union and therefore has to be treated as an arm of the opposition. As long as the government does not have to engage in wage negotiations, therefore, it will avoid them, no matter what the Constitution, local legislation or ILO conventions have to say on the subject. Never mind that the PPP has its own political union in the form of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union.

While PPP/C governments have never trusted the Guyana Teachers’ Union in a political sense, it was never in quite the same category as the GPSU until, that is, its General Secretary became an opposition MP last year. True to form, the Ministry of Education has been circumventing it too, apparently on the grounds that it is acting for APNU. Given that the GTU had little success bringing teachers onto the streets on the vaccination issue, among other things, the government feels confident that it also will probably not succeed in bringing them out on strike now.

The GPSU wasted no time in accusing the government of being “autocratic” in unilaterally deciding on pay increases for public servants, and it urged President Ali to direct that negotiations on wages and salaries be set in motion. In a letter it made reference to constitutional requirements, as well as to the Trade Union Recognition Act of 1997, which states: “Where a trade union obtains a certificate of recognition for workers comprised in a bargaining unit in accordance with this Part, the employer shall recognize the union, and the union and the employer shall bargain in good faith and enter into negotiation with each other for the purpose of collective bargaining.”

As we reported too, Guyana is a signatory to the ILO conventions on the settling of labour disputes, and this is not the first time that the GPSU has accused the government of disregarding them. Both the union and the Public Service Ministry had signed the agreement for the Avoidance and Settlement of Disputes.

The response of the Public Service Ministry bordered on the trivial. Minister of Public Service Sonia Parag told this newspaper in the course of a brief telephone interview that the government had been “pressed for time.” She went on to explain, “We did engage with the GPSU where they proposed certain increases and we told them that we would have to get back to them and discuss further on but time did not permit me, because the exercises [GOAL scholarships, etc, were] going on.”

Exactly how pressed for time the administration could have been when the union had been sending letters since the present government acceded to office is not easily explained. According to the GPSU, most of these were not acknowledged, and no efforts were made to arrange a meeting date, in contravention of the recognition act. Mr Yarde told this newspaper that the “display of lawlessness” was deliberate. Indeed, there is no other conclusion to which anyone can come.

He continued by describing the members of government as having “no respect for other organisations that they have obligations to discuss these things with … They only have regard for the laws that apply to their status and their legitimacy and nothing else. This is a worrying situation because in this modern day this is the autocratic approach we are dealing with.”

We reported other ministers as having defended the 7% decision, several of whom showed a poster highlighting salary increases in other countries across the world. One might have thought it would have occurred to them that direct comparisons of this kind are hardly relevant in circumstances where conditions are very different, and when, as in this case, the workers cited are paid so much more than our public servants in the first instance.

We made reference in our report to the fact that the Bureau of Statistics had recently said there had been a 14% increase in food prices over the first seven months of 2021, while the general cost of living over the same period had risen by 5.4%. One does not have to be an arithmetician, therefore, to conclude that a 7% pay rise is anything but generous. In past years PPP/C governments have traditionally imposed increases of around 5%.

The situation for teachers is arguably worse, because they did not receive an increase in 2020. The GTU said that, “a retroactive salary increase for 2021 will be added to [the] December salary then taxed. It means that teachers will take home less than 4%.” Education Minister Priya Manickchand’s response during a Hits and Jams radio broadcast was, “Governments are laying off people; we didn’t lay anybody off. We not only didn’t lay anybody off, we paid everybody even and straight even when everybody w[as] home for the entire period, and now in this crisis, we are still trying to find a way to give an increase.”

None of this is an excuse for not abiding with local statutes and international requirements to which we are signatory and holding wages and salaries negotiations with the relevant unions. We cannot continue to have governments breach the law because they are still mired in the past and will not deal with anyone they perceive as having opposition associations. It really does not matter what they think of the GPSU, for example, or what they think of Mr Yarde. He heads the body which represents most public servants.

Perhaps the most trenchant criticism on this issue came from Mr. Yarde in fact, when he said the government only had regard for laws which applied to their status and legitimacy, but not for those which involved other obligations. If the governing party is serious about democracy, then they must be committed to upholding the law in all its aspects; that is what the rule of law is all about. They cannot pick and choose as it suits them and then claim to be democratic. They should therefore clarify that the 7% is an interim payment, as the GPSU is saying, and change their stance in 2022 by engaging the unions in wage negotiations.

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