On the question of permanency, that commitment that was given that workers would be made permanent, we expect this to be fulfilled, and not to be traded one for the other.
Those were the words uttered in the Upper House of Parliament by Labour Senator, and President of the Grenada Trade Union Council (GTUC) Andre Lewis, as he contributed to a debate that linked the issue of contract work, and the regularisation of unestablished government workers to pension reform when the newly appointed Senators met for the first time last week Tuesday.
His remarks followed arguments advanced by Labour Minister, Senator Claudette Joseph regarding the fiscal implications on the future of pension payments, if the government attempted mass regularisation of unestablished government employees, without addressing the burning issue of pension reform.
The newly elected Congress government of Prime Minister Dickon Mitchell had campaigned on a promise to create one public service with everyone appointed by the Public Service Commission (PSC).
Over the years, the former New National Party (NNP) administration of current Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Mitchell hired hundreds of staff under contractual arrangements, leaving them with no job security, and to retire without a pension from the State.
Sen. Joseph informed the sitting of the Upper House that “contract work and pension reform must go together” noting that if the government fulfils the promise, without pension reform, it will bloat the public service, and cause irreparable damage to the economy regarding future pension payments.
The Labour Minister who also serves as Attorney General, and Minister for Legal Affairs called on the trade union movement to sit down with the new administration in St. George’s to “work out an acceptable method going forward where everyone will be happy; where we will not leave an unbearable financial burden for those who come after us, and where those who retire going forward will not have to retire into poverty.”
“If we regularise contract workers across the board without at the same time treating with pension reform, what do we do? We bloat the public service; we expand the public service, and in so doing, the number of people who will be eligible for a pension,” Sen. Joseph told the parliamentary sitting.
“…We got to be straight with the nation. Contract work and pension reform must go together because we commit to paying the retroactive pension, and we are doing so. We understand the importance of the ruling of the court. As not to do severe damage, perhaps even irreparable damage to the economy, in the long run, we must work out a pension plan going forward that is sustainable,” she said.
Sen. Joseph went on to say: “As it stands now when people retire they are entitled to NIS – that is public servants I mean …plus government pension, and government pension is a noncontributory pension, which means the government alone pays everything into the pension fund.”
According to the female government minister, under the NIS law the Government pays 6%,” but warned that if there are no changes to the current pension format, the payment “will be a really hefty sum that the IMF and everybody else (have) already warned is not sustainable going forward.”
In a majority vote of seven (7) to five (5), senators voted to not carry a motion as presented by the Labour Senator to support the payment of pension in keeping with the 1958 Pensions Act, reiterating the commitment given by the new administration, after Sen. Joseph cited it as being “premature,” and one that would tie the hands of the government.
Sen. Joseph charged that the NIS was established in 1983 by the left-leaning People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) to replace the old pension act but the regime collapsed and subsequent governments did not complete the process.
She noted that in some cases, several public officers get a pension from the government, and also NIS that amounts to more than their last salary, and this could not have been the intent of the law.
The female parliamentarian told the session that high court judge Justice Raulston Glasgow had hinted in the Pension judgment in favour of public officers that the model “we are left with is not a sustainable one, and we owe it to the nation to treat with the matter in a responsible and fair way with due serious consideration in collaboration and agreement with the unions.”
“If we support the motion as it is without an amendment, it ties the government’s hands for the future and it essentially concludes the matter without proper discussion and analysis on how we are going to proceed going forward, and, that’s the difficulty we have,” Minister Joseph told the Upper House.
She also cited the need for more discussion on the issues at hand, and expressed the view that the motion was being tabled “before the needed discussions came up with a solution that’s responsible and sustainable and protect not just the pensioners now but those in the future, including those we will regularise into the public service.”
In response, Sen. Lewis said that while the trade union movement understands that it may not be possible to make everyone permanent at the same time “it is quite feasible to make a number of workers permanent…especially the nurses” who, along with teachers are among the poorest working people in the country.
He made reference to the World Bank Group Living conditions in Grenada: Poverty and Equity updates, which was conducted in 2018-2019, in collaboration with the Central Statistical Office in St. George’s, and released in 2021.
Alluding to there being several vacant positions within the healthcare system, Sen. Lewis said, while the unions “recognise that there will be some issues that may need to be addressed, there is no justification that can be given in our view, as to why our nurses, in particular, cannot be made permanent.”
According to the Labour Senator, the Grenada Public Workers Union (GPWU) has confirmed that several nurses were given contracts to sign recently.
He suggested that the government can “start (the regularisation of these workers) in bites” and expressed confidence that “there is room for the permanency of these workers.”
Noting that the attrition policy is not applied to workers within the security forces, Sen. Lewis contended that “if we were to treat our healthcare professionals in the same level as we treat our security forces…and if we would give the commitment to our members, our healthcare professionals that you have the security of tenure, this is something that has burned us, and to be hearing right now that there is some kind of conditionality (and) telling me that I will have to give up something in order to get the workers permanent.”
“I do not want to conclude but I am saying that for a moment, I was wondering if I was listening, or if there was no change in administration to be quite frank with you,” he said.
On the political campaign trail leading up to the June 23 general election, the then Minister of Finance Gregory Bowen had described the NDC’s promise to increase the size of the public service as a “threat to the economic stability of the country and brought awareness to what he described as a “pact (formed) with the international community” to reduce the “public service to the required number of 4, 000”
He cited the attrition policy that was implemented under the 3-year International Monetary Fund (IMF) guided Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) undertaken by the NNP regime of Dr. Keith Mitchell to restructure the country’s billion-dollar debt, following a landslide victory at the 2013 poll.
Bowen, who lost the St. George North East seat to NDC’s Phillip Telesford, had also warned that the public service has been decreased from “over 8, 000 public servants” to “6, 300” presently, and argued that “if you take 3, 000 contract workers – Imanis, wardens…and you put them onto the permanent service” it will also block access to funds from the international community.