Cola non-payment could see industrial action – Civil servants meet today

POSTED: 08/21/13 12:26 PM

St. Maarten – Unions that represent employees in the public sector are galvanizing their members to determine a formidable way forward in engaging government regarding the payment of the Cost of Living Adjustment (Cola) for 2011 and 2012.

As frustrations mount, trade unionists have sounded a call for workers to meet at the Windward Islands Civil Servants Union/Private Sector Union (WICSU/PSU) headquarters on Pondfill from 5 p.m. today.

“I would like the members to hold out and if it means that we have to take action to show government that they are not for themselves, we are the government we elected them there. They have to respect the civil servants and the people of St. Maarten because they have their families to feed and when you are going to tell them that you cannot pay them in the correct fashion all is not well,” President Derie Leonard said.

Leonard was at the time speaking at the Windward Islands Chamber of Labor Unions weekly press conference where she joined president of Windward Islands Teachers Union (WITU) Claire Elshot. The two stressed that the patience of all categories of civil servants have waned thin with regard to their annual indexation.

The department of statistics was able to determine that an increase in the cost of living meant that civil servants were owed a 4.6 percent increase in their salaries. Instead of paying out the sum, government has deliberated for months on coming up with an alternative, stating that the Cola is untenable and places additional burdens on its coffers. Under the former administration, the government then announced during its 2013 budget presentation that salaries would be increased by 2.3 percent (50 percent of the payment) which is more affordable. That proposal has been left hanging as new budgetary preparations are being made.

Elshot said that it’s clear, salary indexation would bring increases but those increases need to be properly explained.

Should the 4.6 percent be indexed to the basic salary this would result in an increase in the basic salary as well as social premiums such as pension premium payments.

“The basic benefits for the workers are two prongs. They would be able to get a better pension than if it was indexed. Our members have to clearly understand the pro and cons of receiving your lump sum payment versus indexation. As unions we have to get a clear cut mandate as to what our members really want because I can imagine with all of these discussions that it has now become confusing to our members. All they are hearing is money that is owed. As unions we have to safeguard that certain things cannot and will not happen such as the unilateral decision of any minister to push something in the budget and then we as unions are told after,” the trade unionist noted.

Elshot added that even though the former government claimed that the Cola was placed into the budget at approximately 50 percent of the total cost, the union is still unsure whether it was more or less than the half.

“Knowing government it will always be less,” she opined.

Leonard took issue with statements made by former Minister of Finance Roland Tuitt regarding the high salaries of ministers and parliamentarians.

“I think he insulted civil servants, my person and the people of St. Maarten when he responded that they are professionals so they can justify their salaries. I will pose the question to him and ask: what are the criteria for being a Member of Parliament or minister? But to be a school teacher, immigration office, police or tax department, there are criteria that you have to meet to get those jobs. We are professionals too.”

The unions say they are still waiting to hear from government via the Organized Consultative Body (GOA) or unions on an alternative proposal to the Cola. This was promised since last year, they argued, and the prime minister, who has responsibility for general affairs, is still to provide feedback. All communication through the prime minister’s office on the Cola is being channeled through the media, the workers’ representatives say.

“Whenever it comes to anything that civil servants are due to, it is costing government too much money. I have a message for the prime minister that civil servants will not accept 50 percent payment. We are entitled to the Cola 2011 and 2012 and that is what we would like to have, then we can dialogue on 2013,” Leonard reiterated.

While offering solutions for government to cut back on its expenses, Leonard warned that if officials do not treat the electorate right, they would feel the effects all the way to next year’s polls.

“Election time is right around the corner and these are the same civil servants that you go to and ask them to vote for you. I would like to know what the priorities are. I know there is money there to pay the civil servants. They still have the idea with the Justice Park so they are looking to save money with that Justice Park. We can help them save money. You have the new government building sitting there as a big nice elephant and government is paying enormous rents. When you ask who are the owners of these buildings you get no answer. They can save money by having them park up the government cars by 5:00 pm. We are not consultants but we can help them save money.”

Finance Minister Martin Hassink last week stated that government’s personnel costs are far too high. He is evaluating ways of shrinking these costs. In the meantime, he’s also following up on a proposal that his predecessor made to have experts from the Netherlands examine St. Maarten’s Cola system and then suggest a way forward for government. Leonard retorted that there is growing suspicions from civil servants because of past experiences.

“Bringing in a consultant from Holland, will it be like the past at the hospital with a business within a business? The same minister that is sitting now, I was made to understand, he came down when we had higher supervision. Now he is here back as minister of finance. What is that telling us? Our prime minister is trying to fool the civil servants,” Leonard claimed.

If government fails to reach an agreement soon with the unions, St. Maarten could very see its first full scale industrial action with effects reaching the aviation, tourism, education, administration and justice sectors.


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