Pensioners seek equality, social justice in parliament

POSTED: 03/31/11 12:03 PM

St. Maarten – The Board of the St. Maarten Senior Citizens and Pensioners Association (SMSPA) has told Members of Parliament (MP) that they must work to address the disparity in pensions and other social benefits that exists between the Netherlands and the Dutch territories in the Caribbean. Many of them replied that they’d take these points along as discussions continue around how the relationships in the Kingdom on the social and educational issues can be improved. (See related story on page 3).

The association, led by Patricia “Patsy” Flanders, pointed out that pensioners on the French side enjoy a much better quality of life than their counterparts on the Dutch side, that the Netherlands Antilles had never enacted any sort of specific legislation to protect the elderly.

“Seniors cannot afford to live on the little money they are receiving. We the seniors are not being treated fairly. We have been discriminated against and we’re experiencing poverty. St. Maarten needs to guarantee social security and pension. The seniors are crying and need help; we need help to be in a better position,” Flanders said.

The foundation’s Vice President Raymond Jeserun pressed the point further by pointing that the pension here is at the bottom end of what’s available in other parts of the Dutch kingdom. The amount is highest in the Netherlands where people collect a maximum pension of 1, 035 euro ($1. 367 dollars) if they are over 65. If people retire between 60 and 64 they get social assistance up to 649 euro ($ 858 dollars). The pension in Aruba is 1, 057 guilders ($987 dollars), while pensioners in Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba get 925 guilders ($514 dollars) and people in the French Caribbean also get over 1, 000 euro.

Pension here is 829 guilders ($464 dollars). The foundation wants to change the law so pensions will rise to the 1, 035 euro paid to pensioners in the Netherlands. They also want the parliament to adjust the law so that more companies across the Kingdom are helping to finance the pension fund.

“Pensions here are far below poverty level. They are three times below what is available in the Netherlands. In fact these are poverty pensions. We look at it as there’s so great a difference that there’s an AOV well,” Jesurun said.

Pensions are not the only place where an imbalance exists in the Kingdom. Widows and orphans and those receiving social aid also see an imbalance in what they collect.

Democratic Party (D.P) faction leader Roy Marlin, who chairs the permanent committee on Kingdom Relations and Inter-parliamentary Affairs, considers the differences interesting and said that the data will be discussed with the other parliaments in the kingdom. That asserted Marlin was cautious about what could potentially happen.

“This information gives us good grounds to further the discussions on the inequalities that exist in the Kingdom. While we must get the Kingdom government to live up to its responsibility, we also have our own responsibility. Also let us remember that when you call for certain equality, it may bring on certain other issues and I think we may have to look at equalizing the income ourselves,” Marlin said.

DP MP Petrus Leroy de Weever, Chairman of the permanent committee on Public Health, Social Development and Labor,  “took due note” of the variance in pension and said the data will fit well in the new thrust in the discussion on Kingdom Relations that is shifting more to addressing the social, cultural and educational differences.

“This definitely has to do with the guarantees that must be provided by the Netherlands but the difficulty will no doubt be in the finances, because you have to ensure that when you commit to something like that, you can offer sustainability,” de Weever said.

National Alliance MP Dr. Lloyd Richardson believes MPs have “no other choice than to follow through on the discrepancies.” He also said he’s sure there’s more parliament can do, at the local level, to “ease the burden on people 60 and over.”

“I am willing to bring forward the issues in the permanent committee on Public Health, Social Development and Labor, of which I am a member, and in fact I want to convey to the chairman a sense of urgency to convene a meeting to discuss the issues. I also appeal to my colleagues to take a non-partisan approach to drive for these matters to be completed,” Richardson said.

Fellow NA MP George Pantophlet is less hopeful his colleague stating frankly in the meeting, “There is no equality in the Kingdom and there’s not even equality in Europe.”

Despite that dark view he believes a solution can be found if all MPs work together.

United People’s (UP) Party MP Jules James was not ready to make any promises beyond committing to “move on the issues.”

“It may be premature to expect certain things by January 2012, when progress on the International Action Plan on Aging is reviewed, but you certainly have the commitment of this body. We certainly realize the Dutch are shying away from their responsibility, but our government also needs to take its responsibility and I can guarantee you that we will ensure that both the citizens and our seniors are well taken care of,” James said.

In reply to the mixed tone on how hopeful it would be to create equality Jeserun said, “Yes there is a democratic deficit, but there’s also a social, economic and cultural deficit. We believe that you just have to tell the world that the Dutch is measuring with two sticks and I am sure to avoid the shame they’ll definitely live up to their responsibility.”

Other Demands

Next to dealing with their pensions the foundation wants the Parliament to adopt a motion calling for an end to discrimination against people in the Dutch Caribbean based on geo-political constitutional circumstances, seek advisory support from experts in public international law, instruct the government to table ongoing human rights violations and discrimination around poverty, financing of especially medical care.

On the latter point the delegation of seniors want the Parliament to ensure that the law governing the National Health Insurance (NHI) will be equal for all, guarantees the highest level of health care in the Kingdom, i.e. equal to what is available in the Netherlands, and that is premium free for the seniors. They also want the parliament to ensure that corporate citizens across the Kingdom are paying more into the system and advised parliament to consider a system like the one implemented in Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba (BES) on January 1, 2011. In that case the government funds the sickness insurance using funds it collects from the turnover tax.

D.P MP de Weever committed to ensuring these issues are taken up in the approved text of the law on the NHI.

The pensioners also called for parliament to eliminate discrepancies in social aid, to realize equal social security in Dutch Kingdom and to help them realize all their human rights. Further they called for legislation to be introduced that would ensure that the SMPSA, which represents roughly 3, 000 people, will be included in preparation, formulation, decision making, implementation of policy that affects living conditions and to instruct the government to include SMPSA in all country delegations that have to negotiate with the Dutch and in all delegations that will meet with international organizations like the United Nations, ILO, UNESCO, WHO, and regional organizations such as ECLAC, PAHO, CDCC, CARICOM. This would be in compliance with the bottoms up approach agreed on the International Action Plan on Aging.

The SMPSA’s Education Secretary Carl Cooner pressed the inclusion point stating, “If you get seniors to help you can reduce health care costs, because then they’ll be active and that’s good for their bodies. Seniors can also be assets to your education system. We really have to look at how we can do things without too much outside assistance because we won’t have the safety net of mother Holland forever and including the seniors is one of the things that will help to reduce costs. Also if you make it possible for the individual to do things for himself, that will lead to and improved standard of living.

Retirement age

The delegation also raised concerns about the retirement age, calling former Minister Omayra’s Leeflang’s announcement that the Government of the Netherlands Antilles and the Social Insurance Bank were considering raising the pension age a threat to people who should otherwise be retiring. He was responding to a question by National Alliance MP Frans Richardson.

There are differing opinions in Parliament on this issue. UP MP Dr. Ruth Douglas believes the pension age should be higher, but fellow coalition MP L. De Weever believes just the opposite.

Douglas said, “We need to look at the fact that there are people who are between 60 and 65 and they still work, but the doors are being closed to them.”

De Weever said, “I can understand a higher pension age in a place like the Netherlands where the work is less strenuous and the health system is better, but here people work under much more strenuous conditions and I believe that at the end of that they should be able to have to good pension period. We also have to consider in the Netherlands they raised the age because of pressure on the fund and so increase the age so people could continue paying into the fund.”

Jeserun was clear though that the seniors and those near retirement are not ready to accept a hike in the retirement age. He also called it discriminatory that government policy requires civil servants to retire when they reach the age of 60. This does not happen in the private sector and the foundation believes this is discriminatory.

“In fact we would want people to go on pension earlier and I can even provide you with a list of countries who are reducing the retirement age. I should also point out that the problem of the funds came because of the arrangements that were made for the funds,” Jeserun said.

The Foundation has also requested a meeting with the Council of Ministers, but is still waiting for a date for the meeting.

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