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Barbados' big job cuts

Weekend of 'crisis' talks

RICKEY SINGH

Sunday, December 22, 2013    

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THE people of Jamaica, who know much about having to cope with the dread consequences of prescriptions from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for fiscal and economic management, can well empathise with Barbadians at this Christmas season as they prepare for the coming fallout from the planned retrenchment of thousands of public sector workers in the first quarter of next year.

Having concluded an arrangement with the IMF that included, for a start, the bitter medicine of some 3,000 job cuts in the public sector, or face the threat of devaluation of the Barbados dollar, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) Administration of Prime Minister Freundel Stuart has Barbadians in a mood of spreading gloom.

For Barbadians, accustomed to applause from international financial institutions and credit rating agencies as having the most stable currency in this region — 50 cents to the US dollar — the prospect of having to cope with a devalued dollar is viewed as sacrilegious talk.

Yet, depending on the outcome of coming meetings with representatives of the private sector and the labour movement, and more precisely the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), we should learn within the first quarter of 2014 if Prime Minister Stuart's Administration can succeed in averting the looming crisis.

At the time of writing last week, the credibility of the NUPW — the largest representative of organised public sector workers — seemed to be at stake.

Towards the weekend, it was seeking to test the mood in favour of a possible three per cent salary cut for workers with the hope of avoiding the coming mass retrenchment. 'Temporary' workers — many known to be working for years without confirmation — are most vulnerable to the planned job cuts.

Surprises and meetings

Both government ministers and strategists of the governing DLP, as well as representatives of various trade unions and private sector enterprises were scheduled to be engaged in separate meetings over the weekend to assess alternatives to the coming economic crisis, unless compromises could be achieved

Earlier in the week, surprises were the order of the day as Barbadians were digesting the negative consequences of the Government's IMF-influenced economic management for 2014.

The biggest surprise was that of December 13 — deemed "Black Friday" by the Barbados Daily Nation — when Finance Minister Chris Sinckler made his shock announcement of the planned public sector job cuts in view of very serious fiscal challenges facing the Government and the need to avoid devaluation of the Barbados dollar.

What made that gloomy announcement even more depressing was the disclosure by representatives of the private sector and labour movement — including, most significantly, the NUPW — that they had not benefited from any prior consultation of the planned job cuts.

Structured consultations involving the Government, labour movement and private sector had become the norm following Barbados's creation of its laudable 'social partners' mechanism to ensure a stable environment in the interest of the country's orderly economic development.

Why, therefore, did the minister of finance choose to ignore the necessity to at least inform the NUPW in particular about the coming job cuts, having completed an economic management agreement, as influenced by officials of the IMF, who had by then departed the country?

A series of related surprises were to follow: For example, last Monday — three days after his finance minister's announcement — Prime Minister Stuart met with a delegation from the NUPW.

Recall of 1994 crisis

Mr Stuart had a tough message to deliver. He was not interested in talks for any "band aid" economic fix, but to get to "the root of the problem" so that in the medium to long term "everybody is happy".

Mr Stuart would have had for guidance what happened in 1994 to a DLP administration under then Prime Minister Erskine Sandiford. That Government fell to a no-confidence motion in Parliament, initiated by the Barbados Labour Party's Owen Arthur, who later became a three-term prime minister.

The prime minister is a current second-term head of government. This seems reasonably long enough in control of state power to have identified the "root" of the problems afflicting the nation rather than being trapped in 2013 into an IMF-prescribed programme with massive retrenchment in the public sector and related expanding national consequences.

For a start, the planned retrenchment of public sector workers is a most daunting challenge for the NUPW's credibility, moreso now that its president has gone public with a verbal blast at ex-Prime Minister Arthur for challenging the union to take a firm stand -- as it had done back in 1994 against then Prime Minister Sandiford's plans for salary and/or job cuts.

Although it has a mere two-seat majority in the 30-member House of Assembly, there seems no possibility of the DLP Administration suffering a similar no-confidence fate as happened in 1994 when a few parliamentarians of the then ruling party teamed up with the BLP Opposition.

The big question at this time of widespread uncertainties is whether the involved unions can demonstrate a united front for negotiated alternatives to the threatened job cuts and related challenges based on the IMF-prescribed policies to stave off devaluation of the Barbados dollar.

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