The New Today

Commentary

Genuine transparency and collaboration for Grenada’s pension reform

In presenting the Grenada 2023 Budget Statement on 5 December 2022, Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Dickon Mitchell expressed that “in the interest of transparency and collaboration” the Government has invited the Trade Unions Council (TUC) to nominate a representative to serve on a five-member Committee chaired by Economist Curlan Gilchrist “to devise a new Pension Regime for all employees who will join the Public Service after January 2024” and that the Government remains “hopeful a representative will be appointed in short order.”

This unspecified Stakeholder Committee was first put forward by Dickon on 31 October 2022 during the Government’s Town Hall Meeting to celebrate the rule of the 23 June 2022 National Democratic Congress (NDC) with reports on its discoveries, challenges, feats and plans, and it was described as a Pension Reform Committee to address Pension Reform in a frontal manner within twelve months.

A highpoint, boast and mileage for the NDC administration being its decision to honor the Justice Glasgow 29 March 2022 Judgment in favour of the pension benefits to public officers.

Genuine transparency and collaboration, as well as with sound understanding, equity and tolerance, are essential principles to be adopted and applied by all parties, including the Government and every citizen, for the worth and the realisation of the Budget’s theme.

The Theme is “Vision 2035: People-Centered Transformation Laying the Foundation for Resilience, Empowerment and Growth”, and is in line with the 2019 Grenada 2020-2035 National Sustainable Development Plan. It was unfortunate however, to have been entertained by the ‘tone and message’ transmitted by the Honourable Dickon Mitchell, concerning the leadership of the TUC.

This occurrence on the early outset of any incoming political administration can be self-destructive, and it may be instructive as to why that after at least one month of the invitation by the Government to the TUC for an appointment on the Stakeholder Pension Reform Committee, a receipt and confirmation of a representative could not be mentioned as been evidenced.

“…Now I also want to say this to the trade unions’ leadership, not the membership, the leadership …. we’ve paid the pension, the issue of pension reform has to be addressed. We have constituted a pension reform committee. We are leaving space on that committee for the Trade Unions Council to appoint a representative to that committee, but we need to speak to the citizens of our country and the public servants in particular. If we don’t address pension reform, you may get pension on paper but when you retire you will not have a funded pension. And the reality therefore is that pension reform must happen for your sake. We are giving ourselves twelve months to address this issue in a frontal manner, and we hope that there will be active participation by the labour movement, by the Trade Unions Council so that we can come up with a formula that works for the sustainability of public officers pensions”.

What must be concluded about the ‘posture and pronouncement’ of Dickon at NDC’s Celebration Meeting, directed at the TUC? Isn’t it considered ‘automatic, inherent and unavoidable’ for TUC to be a member of any such Pension Reform Committee; and in fact, what or who are the other stakeholders of ‘priority and imperativeness’ on the said established committee?

Is it about being ignorant about the role and power of the TUC; or is it about ‘bravery and confidence’ because of knowing and asserting that the ‘repute and power’ of TUC has been drastically degraded with the ploys, during the era of the administration of the New National Party (NNP) of Keith Mitchell, to divide and rule, to incapacitate and to discredit the Labour Movement and thus ultimately in order to control the Public Service with its severe policies?

Moreover, is this confidence based on the payment of the outstanding Pension and Gratuity to the qualified retired public officers?

Is Dickon aware that despite whatsoever is the ‘outlook and respect’ about the TUC that the TUC is the official collective bargaining agent for workers locally and is affiliated widely throughout the working world?

Is Dickon aware that the TUC is even reflected in Grenada’s 1974 National Constitution, at least under Chapter Six as an “appropriate representative” body on the Public Service Commission and under Chapter Three as a sectorial representative body in the Parliament, unless it is the transformational policy to replace the TUC with another “organisation or interest group which the Prime Minister considers the Senators should be selected to represent”?

Is Dickon aware that it has been internationally recognised and upheld that the sustainable development of a nation depends virtually on the ‘sweat and tears’ of workers and that the employment gains of workers are not because of the favours of politicians but by the ‘struggles and sacrifices’ of trade unionism?

In fact, it was the collaborative efforts of the leading TUC’s constituents, with the strong willpower of some sympathetic attorneys, which afforded the Justice Raulston Glasgow Pension Judgement.

Dickon needs to go beyond the ‘ready-made’ progress on the restoration of the constitutional 1958 Pensions Legislation and beyond any ‘artificial and limited’ doings of the NDC about Pension Reform, to repeal the ‘menacing legal hurdle’ of the Pensions (Disqualification) Act since often judged “unconstitutional, null and void”.

It is interesting to realise how the Prime Minister (re)focusses on, or may have come to grips with, the intrinsic relationship and crucial role of the TUC, as he responded to clarifications sought by Journalist Ms. Linda Straker as she referred to the recent court verdict on the 1983 Pensions (Disqualification) Act.

Straker’s pointed concern was about what the Government hoping to achieve with Pension Reform that “will not be a violation of public officers’ constitutional rights”. This questioning was during the Government’s Special Press Conference on 16 November 2022 for the symbolic payment of the Pension and Gratuity.

Dickon acknowledged that the Constitution guarantees public servants’ right to a pension and claims to have no quarrel to respect the Constitution and the entitlements of public servants.

He, however argues that if the State does not have the money to pay the pension, then it is “a constitutional right that exists on paper and not in reality”, and thus difficult corrective steps for future purposes have to be taken now to ensure that a pension can be paid when it falls due.

He furthermore highlights that one of the number of ways by which this correction can be done is by discussion and by agreement between the unions that represent the public servants/officers and the Government, and if that agreement happens then it is about going back to Parliament with the Opposition to get “the necessary legislative and if necessary constitutional changes to make that reform happen”.

Related:  New status, rules and benefits envisaged for Grenada’s public servants - Part I

There must be the consciousness that ‘political and industrial relationship is a roller coaster’, and that even with any eager intention with a glowing agenda for “transforming and moving Grenada forward”, history must be a lead teacher to achieve tremendous success with a positive input to the nation.

In outlining the position of the NNP-administration for dealing with the Glasgow Pension Judgment and for seeking the cooperation of the various stakeholders on that approach, Keith Mitchell on 26 April 2022 in a National Address revealed that a meeting with the trade unions was scheduled but “there was a decision taken by the major unions not to attend the meeting and participate in any discussions”.

Keith’s address also summarises NNP’s attempts “to address public employees’ dissatisfaction through legal amendments and agreements with trade unions” and to reach a new Pension Regime for public officers; this includes the Government signing in 2018 a Memorandum of Understanding with the unions “to reduce the large difference between NIS (‘National Insurance Scheme’) and public sector pensions”.

Without having such mindfulness and experiences, as well as having no practical provision to accommodate the TUC as a central stakeholder and force then there will be ‘gross uncertainty’ about the hope of the NDC administration for Modernising Labour Relations as the Budget Statement also declared that “Government is committed to the development of a strong and resilient labour market and industrial relation services to support the growth generation and the creation of wealth for all”.

What is the historic reality which is applicable and necessary for deep analysis and informed decision, regarding Dickon’s talks and calls about Pension Reform?

Over the past many years collaborations and compromises by public officers and by the public service sector trade unions have been disappointing and futile, and with much financial, psychological and opportunity harm.

The Pension Reform Committee is nothing ‘exciting and extraordinary’, since there have been versions and/or derivatives of the said committee, with all having generally the same rationale and objective for the establishment and with the role of the TUC.

This sad ‘shady’ scenario began in 1995 when the Government appointed a Pension Review Committee with a view to “the developing of a suitable plan of retirement benefits for public officers”.

Then as have proven to be a ‘characteristic mischievous’ practice to date, following the losses of the Government on the constitutional court cases for pension benefits to public officers, it promotes a ‘commitment and determination’ to bring satisfactory mutual settlement.

Thus, a Cabinet-appointed committee was set up to address pensions for retiring officers, after the 15 September 1998 Justice Dennis Byron Judgment on the Civil Appeal between Irvin McQueen and The Public Service Commission, and similarly the 15 October 2012 Justice Margaret Price-Findlay Judgment in the Hermilyn Armstrong’s case saw the establishment of a Pension Secretariat and a Government Pension Engagement Committee to negotiate pensions for those officers.

Presently witnessed is the repeated pattern with the Pension Secretariat and Pension Reform Committee from Glasgow’s 2022 judgement.

To gain ‘support, sentiment and solidarity’ for reforming the Pension Regime for public officers, the Government has been instilling ‘fear, anxiety and friction’ in the population on the basis that the present constitutional arrangement for those officers is ‘unbecoming, unsustainable and unfair’.

How reasonable and factual is this assertion, within the economic and governance scenario in Grenada? How ‘transparent and accountable’ is the Government to the people?

The warning made in previous writings must be reiterated; that is, the ‘young, incoming and potential or aspiring’ career public officers especially, must not be ‘gullible, complacent and passive’ about Pension Reform and having a new Pension Regime for all employees who will join the Public Service after January 2024.

When sensitive issues of patriotism, sacrifices and responsibility for the national collective good are encountered, then sound and sober judgment must be exercised so as not to allow popular or favourite politicians, or even influential individuals and trends, to derail or to completely erode personal sovereign rights including those on constitutional pension benefits.

The acceptance, collaboration compromise and reliance of the officers and unions on the proposal degenerated into, or may have rewarded them with, ridicule, shame and hardship; but luckily the officers were ‘rescued and revived’ not by Dickon Mitchell but by the ‘resounding and comprehensive’ 2022 Glasgow Judgment for all qualified officers in the Public Service.

Note too, the remarks about NDC then – “The de-facto main opposition political party, National Democratic Congress (NDC), is yet to declare its hand on the issue of the state pension. Is the NDC on the same wavelength with the ruling New National Party (NNP), in collusion with external influences, on the issue?

Before getting into power, it is imperative that the NDC be able to affirm whether or not it endorses the pension proposal, as well as whether or not it will, at least, repeal the 1983 PDA (‘Pensions Disqualification Act’), as one of its first acts in Parliament.

The trade unions for public officers must be critical and wary of the posture and utterances of the politicians; and despite which political party forms the government, the unions ought to be relentless in the pursuit of natural justice for its members.”

How ‘holistic and in-depth’ is the scope of operations of the Stakeholder Pension Reform Committee; and what level of correlation, consultation and incorporation would be performed?

Would access be made to related efforts, documents, individuals and projects of the past, such as those raised herein, for ‘professional and practicable’ musings and decisions?

How would the Committee treat the various pension models advised and the tremendous technical assistance extended by institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the Caribbean Regional Technical Assistance Centre?

Is the Committee aware of and will harmonise its findings with the Charter of Caricom on Social Security, and with official reports such as on Pension Administration Reform in the Eastern Caribbean and from Bacon Woodrow and DeSouza Limited Pension Planner and Actuary?

Within further consideration, amongst other related issues including attending to the risky financial state of the NIS, is Dickon’s definition of and disposition for the Public Service and public officers.

Furthermore as being reiterated in the Budget Statement, “…. reform of the existing pension arrangements must go hand in hand with staff regularization,” would the Pension Committee also be occupied with studying the impact of the existing employment requirements and staff structure with pay and grade, and projecting policy executions, service deliveries and manpower capacity?

Undoubtedly, attention needs to be given to the fiscal policies, legislations and executions with foremost is the Fiscal Responsibility Act, to minimum wage and inflation, but NOT on attacking the 1974 Constitution.

J.K. Roberts