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Gov't should use NIDS speed to close public sector wage deal

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

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Public sector union leaders and negotiating teams are growing impatient, frustrated, and anxious with the pace of talks with the Government and its delayed and lethargic wage negotiating machinery. I have been keeping a close watch on how things are developing; however, at the time of writing this article the wage negotiation Saffir-Simpson scale is telling me that there is a dangerous social system that has developed over the island.

It is said to be coming with 'social force winds' located near latitude 19.7 north and longitude 50.3 west of the Ministry of Finance and a few miles east of Gordon House. A well-placed source told me that the name of this socially disruptive weather system had not been named as yet. However, those analysing the data have flirted with names such as 'cantguarantee', 'outsick', 'strationdemon', 'testspro', or 'downlock'. My sources have told me that some experts believe that the name can be released as early as this week depending on the speed and strength of the negotiation wind. Based on the latest information and track analysis, wind speed had slowed down causing steady seas and almost clear skies. However, there is still a tense calm, and things are very fickle at the moment and could change at any time. the public is advised to stay calm.

The politics of the public sector wage negotiation

The Government is between a rock and a hard place, on the one hand, it wants to stay on track with the economy performing at a rate that pleases the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the multilaterals. And, on the other hand, it is hoping that public servants will hold strain.

It is no secret that the Government's commitment to the IMF is to bring the public sector wage bill to nine per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2019. Secondly, they have committed to reforming the public sector, once and for all, either through rationalisation, transformation or both. While the government can squeeze and make it in with 9-10 per cent of GDP, it does not have the gonads to reform and transform the public sector, which will inevitably see cuts in the public sector.

Governments, over the years, have played politics with public sector transformation. There is the well-known wait-it-out tactic with the IMF when it comes to the sore point of public sector reforms. When the Jamaica Labour Party was in government 10 years ago, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Bruce Golding, the IMF at that time had stipulated public sector reform as one of the benchmarks of the agreement at the time. In 2009, Golding set up the Public Sector Transformation Unit, which was to lead, monitor, evaluate and facilitate the implementation of the restructuring of the public sector for efficient, effective and economic growth. The unit was set up and staffed, the transformation team was named and Prime Minister Golding, at the time, sounded very strident that the implementation was imminent as the intent was to meet the conditions of the IMF.

I was so convinced until I was told by a senior advisor in the government at that time that it will not happen. He said it matter of factly, with a big grin on his face. He told me that all the grand statements were just that, grand statements, because no one wants to risk their political future by troubling the known elephant in the room. Ten years later, smooth-talking Prime Minister Holness in response to the IMF said, “We must confront what we have avoided for so long — comprehensive reform of our public sector.” I am usually an optimistic person, so I am anxious to see when the reform will begin and what shape it would take.

Are the Government's

It is a fact that we are living in a harsh economic climate; gone are the days when the Government can borrow to pay increased wages and then spend the rest of the time filling that hole thus creating a dangerous cycle on unsustainable fiscal indiscipline. It is also a fact that public servants have been patient, they have bit their lips through two rounds of the wage freeze and have been very understanding while the country navigated its way through one of the toughest economic times a few years ago. It is also a fact that the Government finds hundreds of millions of dollars to do all sorts of projects — remember the eight hundred million, you certainly can't forget the six hundred million — and I have not even mentioned the other area in which money was just plainly wasted. The obvious question, therefore, is: Are the Government's hands really tied?

Let's look on the other side of the public sector equation. It is a well-established fact that there is corruption in the system, but the problem is not simply corruption. It is a form of institutionalised, legal time-wasting that is endemic in the public service legitimatised by a culture of unaccountability. Some civil servants spend half of Monday mornings trying to adjust after the weekend break, several minutes checking their smart devices, searching for files that cannot be found, passing on calls to individuals who are not at their desks, hours spend gossiping, and general tardiness. There is a culture to get your personal business out of the way then start the government's (the public's) work. Let's not talk about the unproductive Fridays, where nothing or very little gets done. “After all, dem not paying me what I deserve.”

It is a real issue in the public sector, and it needs to be addressed. Could it be solved by paying more attention to the meagre wages civil servants are paid? If that is the case, then it is time for us to have the conversation on performance-based pay in the public sector. Teachers, nurses, police and civil servants from across the public sector should be able to receive incentives for outstanding work through a performance-based pay system. Let's not forget that encouragement sweetens labour. Further, a comprehensive revision of the appraisal system is also needed.

Recommendations for future wage negotiations

I believe that every Government becomes nervous every time it comes closer and closer to the wage negotiation cycle, especially when there is little wiggle room and heavy oversight by the IMF. But there is a way to avoid the trepidation. I am recommending that the Government of the day establishes a Public Sector Wage Commission (PSWC) to advise the Government on public service remuneration. The findings of the PSWC will inform Government's considerations when setting the base pay for a public servant for the next three wage negotiation cycles. The PSWC will consider such other remuneration matters as it may be asked to consider by the minister of finance through the minister of the public service from time to time. These could include but not limited to:

• a comprehensive analysis of the appropriate pay levels for identifiable groups within the public sector, eg, the Jamaica Constabulary Force;

• ensuring that proper rates for identifiable groups are aligned to similar rates in the private sector;

• analysing and comparing the rates for identifiable groups within the public service with their equivalents in other jurisdictions, where internationally traded skill sets are required having due regard to differences in economic context (This will help to manage the country's brain drain challenge.);

• providing objective analysis on other non-monetary incentives that can be added to the pay package of public servants, eg, land for farming as a means of subsidising the income of a specific identifiable group;

• analysing the pay trends of civil servants

In progressing with its work the PSWC should utilise and analyse all existing reports and data sets as it investigates the matter of public service wages. It may also invite relevant stakeholders to make submissions to assist with its analyses. This report of the PSWC should be made public for full disclosure and transparency.

I hope that after a thorough discussion at the Cabinet retreat last week, the Government will head back to the negotiating table with fresh ideas, while using the same urgency and speed it used to pass the national identification system Bill to close the deal with most unions and prevent the social storm from hitting the island. We just can't afford it at this time!

Henry J Lewis is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Observer or hjlewis@utech.edu.jm.

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