BY CONRAD HAMILTON Sunday Observer senior reporter email@example.com
AMIDST brewing controversy and despite threats of protest from the parliamentary opposition, one public sector trade union is demanding a reintroduction of user fees in the public health-care system, a move it says would allow the Government to grant public sector workers a much-needed salary hike.
The pronouncement from the general secretary of the Union of Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Personnel (UTASP) St Patrice Ennis has added to the increasing levels of discontent among public sector unions in response to the suggestion that employees may have to make do with what they have due to the pending agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Among other things, the IMF is demanding a reduction in the country's debt and has reportedly suggested that a reduction in the public sector wage bill would help to solve this problem.
For some analysts, this reduction in the money paid to public servants can only be achieved through a wage freeze or by downsizing the public sector.
Ennis is insisting that his union has not agreed to any wage freeze and will not enter into such an arrangement with the Government, as workers who have been struggling to make ends meet cannot endure another three or four years without a salary increase.
Branding the universal health-care policy an entitlement that Jamaicans cannot afford the UTASP executive added that free tuition at the secondary level of the education system is another benefit that has tremendously reduced the Government's ability to pay decent wages to public sector workers.
He believes that public servants are again being called upon to shoulder a burden that should be shared by everyone.
"If you are saying that people are required to make sacrifices, then everybody will have to make that sacrifice. Of course user fees must come back. If it doesn't, then we are going to have a public-health system that falls totally into disarray. Right now the system is not holding up because you don't have medicines, every day you read that people can't find their records, you waiting for hours before you get service in the hospitals; we just can't afford it; it's a matter of mathematics," said the trade unionists, whose union represents medical technologists in the public-health system, medical records personnel, employees at the Port Authority of Jamaica and workers at the meteorological service, among others.
"If you come from overseas you have access to free health care. If you are the wealthiest Jamaican you have access to free health care. If you have health insurance you have access to free health care. What sort of nonsense is that? The expenditure has to come from somewhere and I am saying that when the Government makes its budget it accords priorities where it wants, and part of its priority is to win elections, so it doesn't want to deal with the repercussions of having to introduce a user fee policy, and it doesn't want to deal with removing the 'no tuition fee' in the school system. So the scapegoat now to help deal with their expenditure issues is to cut compensation for public sector workers," Ennis said.
He lobbied for the introduction of a means test to determine those members of the public who are unable to pay for health services, in order to establish special provisions for them.
But Ennis's argument has not found favour with Opposition Spokesman on Public Service and Labour, Senator Arthur Williams, who again insisted that both the free tuition policy and the 'no user fee' regime should not be touched.
"There must be no additional cost to students in school, and we are on record as saying you should not touch the user fees in hospitals unless there is a proper insurance system in place," Williams asserted.
However, Ennis maintained that Jamaicans continue to hide from reality and insisted that the policies must be reviewed.
"In every other country looking at austerity measures entitlements are on the table, and these include the United Kingdom and the United States, where right now there is a big debate over welfare. The only people who seem to be oblivious to this is us, and we are poorer than all of these countries. Why is this not part of the debate? Why aren't these issues on the table?" Ennis asked as he raised concerns about the usefulness of recent meetings of the public sector monitoring committee.
According to him, Government representatives often come to the meetings with cemented positions and are reluctant to engage in negotiations.
He added that since the departure of former Finance and Planning Minister Dr Omar Davies in 2007, the effectiveness of the meetings has been reduced.
Meanwhile, the UTASP general secretary said that the Simpson Miller administration is guilty of committing the same mistakes that marred relations between the unions and the Bruce Golding-led Jamaica Labour Party administration.
"We believe that this Government has made the same mistake as the previous Government which had a wage agreement with the unions for a seven per cent increase for the period 2009-2010. However, it still felt that it could go ahead and embark on an agreement with the IMF, and announced that it would not honour the seven per cent wage increase. The unions resisted that and the upshot of it was that the Government paid the seven per cent which amounted to some 20 billion dollars, and that caused the IMF deal to be in disarray. Having that precedence, this Government decided to embark upon a negotiation with the IMF prior to arriving at some form of agreement with the unions," Ennis argued.