Joint Unions demand increments by April 1

The content originally appeared on: News Americas Now

Black Immigrant Daily News

The content originally appeared on: Amandala Newspaper

Photo: Joint Unions press conference

by Kory Leslie (Freelance Writer)

BELIZE CITY, Tues. Feb. 7, 2023

At a press conference held on Monday of this week, the Joint Unions did not hold back from blasting the government for what they believe are the multiple ways in which the government has failed public workers, and they also issued several forceful demands.

The primary subject discussed by representatives of the Public Service Union (PSU), and the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU) was the 10% salary deduction and increment freeze that had been put in place back in April of 2021. At the time, the PM shared that “the $60 million in salary adjustments and the $20 million foregone for increments and allowances … is one step in the hard slog back to fiscal fitness”. There was immediate rejection of these measures by the joint unions followed by various forms of industrial action; however, the GOB remained adamant that the salary reduction and increment freeze were necessary for at least three years.

While the 10% salary deductions were reversed in 2022, however, the increments remain frozen. In a recent interview the PM stated that the increments would remain on hold until the PUP’s third fiscal year in office. He also suggested that pension reform would accompany any restoration of such remuneration. However, reports that the tax-free base salary received by Belize’s High Court judges has been raised to $175,000, has angered public workers. According to the PM, this was a decision that they had no choice but to make because Belize is one of the countries that pays the lowest salaries to magistrates, which has led to a depletion of judges in the country. This justification was not sufficient for the unions, and is believed to be one of the main reasons for the press conference on Monday.

In reference to the increments, PSU president, Dean Flowers said that the public sector will not accept a delay of increments past April 1, 2023:

“As it relates to the increments of public sector workers, the Prime Minister informed the joint unions that not only was he not prepared to restore increments in the upcoming fiscal year, but also that he was not prepared to restore public officers on the point where they ought to be when his government decides to resume the payment of increments. Now you’ll hear me use the word ‘restore’ versus ‘resume’, and that’s because the restoration or resumption of increments is neither guaranteed in 2024 because the Prime Minister informed that his administration wants to introduce pension reform, which is another fancy name for contributory pension. What we’ve said to the Prime Minister is that we’re prepared to have a conversation surrounding pension reform; but a conversation surrounding tax reform must also occur because it is currently the workers of this country, and more importantly public sector workers, who are carrying the burden of taxes, while we have these unscrupulous businessmen who recently legislation was passed to allow them to easily wind up and declare bankruptcy. Me and you don’t have that privilege of deciding whether or not we pay 25% versus the 6% that these multi-millionaires in Belize are paying. Now, our position to the government remains: increments must be restored on April the 1st, 2023. There is absolutely no reason for the government to continue punishing public officers by withholding their increments,” Flowers said.

In regard to the proposed pension reform, which the government reportedly intends to enact this year, the PSU president outrightly stated that this is not something that currently employed public workers will contribute to:

“What Belize needs is tax reform, as the current tax regime is burdensome on us at twenty-five percent. What has us here is the poor fiscal management since 1981 by the PUDP… The joint union position in closing is that no public officer currently employed in the public service is to contribute to any pension fund. No public officer currently in the public service is to contribute to any pension fund, no police officer, no Coast Guard, no teacher, no public officer will contribute to any contributory public funds, and the Ministry of Finance needs to get that in their head. So, whenever it is that they rush the establishment of this pension scheme, which the Prime Minister informed that he wants to roll out by April 1, 2023, it must be aimed and geared by those who come to the service thereafter,” he stated.

Other issues discussed during the conference were the delay in the signing of a Collective Bargain Agreement (CBA) between the BNTU and the GoB, and the 30% of pension payments owed to teachers working in Church-run schools. BNTU president, Elena Smith shared that her union has been fighting for both causes for years, and said that by now she feels that the CBA may be a lost cause:

“We also have the issue of the collective bargaining agreement. For those of you who have been following us, you would know that we are heading towards what year … fifteen. We are getting to year fifteen and we have not yet closed our CBA. I believe that is history. I don’t know which other union would have had to wait that long to conclude a collective bargaining agreement,” she said.

Smith stated, however, that one aspect of the CBA that the BNTU does not intend to back down on is the 30% pension to be paid by the churches.

“So, besides looking at the fact of the seventy-thirty, Minister Henry Usher said to us that the churches simply cannot afford to pay these teachers. They don’t have the money. Well, you own a school, you have employees, and you know what are your responsibilities, and you don’t prepare for thirty-five years down the road when a teacher is going to retire. And then the government will say to us, ‘Oh, but they don’t have money. They can’t afford it’. All of us give collection and those same teachers have to fundraise at their schools to be able to assist those schools. So, what are we doing with those moneys? Have those schools been audited? BNTU continues to say that this is one matter we will not give up on. We will fight to the bitter end to ensure that our teachers get what they rightfully deserve,” Smith remarked.

The joint unions also took the opportunity to call on the GoB to address inflation and price gouging which has increasingly been of concern to the Belizean public since the latter part of 2022. Where industrial action is concerned, there was no concrete response given to signal that this is in the works; however, both union presidents said that they are gathering the support of public officers across the entire country to prepare for what is to follow if the increments are not restored on April 1.