Civil servants have withdrawn a strike notice served on the Government after a meeting Friday with Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke, giving the Andrew Holness Administration a breather at the end of a punishing week of public sector industrial action that had the prime minister appealing to State employees to act with “reason”.
But even as Holness made his appeal at the official handing-over ceremony of the Jamaica Fire Brigade Area 4 Headquarters in Montego Bay, St James, National Housing Trust workers were off the job protesting against what they said was a deliberate act by the agency’s management to avoid concerns over a job evaluation exercise.
“It is not in our interest to kick over our own milk,” Holness said at the Fire Brigade ceremony. “We acknowledge and understand that there is agitation, but act with reason. Let us protect the revenues coming in, so that there is actually something good to negotiate over. Don’t go back to the last 50 years of contention.”
The Government, he said, acknowledges that its employees have genuine and legitimate concerns and supported the workers’ right to air them. However, he urged, “...don’t take action to stop the revenues from flowing into the pool which you will need to negotiate about”.
Noting that a previous agreement between the Government and public sector unions allowed the country to finally “see some light”, Holness appealed to workers to not “shock” the economy.
“A decade ago, the nation came together. We were on the brink of a crisis… well, we were in the crisis about to go over the precipice; some would say we went over. But we came together as a nation and in that coming together the financial sector, [and the] business sector agreed that they would postpone the repayment of some of their debt and other things,” the prime minister said.
“Government agreed that we would put in certain legislation and we would change the way in which we spend… no more ‘run with it’ behaviour. And the unions agreed to a wage freeze. That was a signal moment in Jamaica’s history. Now we are starting to see some light,” he said, adding that the agreement had led to a significant reduction of Jamaica’s debt-to-GDP ratio.
“At the end of this fiscal year we could be about 90 per cent or lower, depending, of course, on how our revenues recover… how we manage our expenditure and if there are no more shocks, because we are an open economy and that means that we are susceptible to shocks,” Holness said.
“COVID was a shock. The war in the Ukraine was another shock. A country like Jamaica, through those two critical shocks, managed to stay stable [and] recovered our unemployment rate. We are now down to the lowest ever in our history, to about 6.2 per cent. Growth is starting to return, visitors are starting to come back, our children are going back to school. Those shocks were not of our making. We must not make shocks for ourselves,” Holness said.
On Tuesday of this week, National Water Commission workers had staged a two-day strike over the Government’s handling of a compensation review.
That was followed on Thursday by air traffic controllers who stopped working in frustration, they said, over a faulty radar system. That action closed the island’s airspace, affecting at least 10,000 travellers and costing the country millions of dollars in lost revenue.
But as the air traffic controllers returned to work Thursday night, news emerged that the Jamaica Civil Service Association (JCSA) had indicated its intention to call a strike next Monday if the Government failed to address the organisation’s concerns about claims it wanted settled in advance of the implementation of the State’s compensation review.
On Friday afternoon, however, the JCSA said it “will be withdrawing the notice to strike” after a meeting with Clarke at which its concerns were discussed.
“The central issues were (i) the JCSA’s position that its 2021/22 claim be settled in advance of the implementation of the compensation review, and (ii) the JCSA’s concerns with respect to the proposed discontinuation of JCSA negotiated benefits as part of the compensation review,” the association said in a statement.
The JCSA said it received assurances from Clarke that the 2021/22 claim will be speedily addressed in good faith. Additionally, it said Clarke “affirmed his openness to feedback on the proposed discontinuation of JCSA negotiated benefits and further reiterated commitment to dialogue in the spirit of good industrial relations”.
Also, “the ministry has committed to re-examining the JCSA’s 2021-2022 claim as it relates to transport allowances by setting up a technical review team”, the JCSA said, adding that it has reaffirmed its endorsement of the principles of the compensation review, “notwithstanding the fact that there are details left to be resolved prior to implementation”.
Minister Clarke also issued a statement after the meeting, saying that the dialogue was frank and that he reminded the JCSA leadership that the Government, “in fulfilment of its solemn obligations to all the taxpayers and citizens of Jamaica, has a duty to manage the resources of the State as efficiently as possible”.
He said that the JCSA had felt strongly that the negotiated benefits that are proposed to be discontinued should have been presented to the association directly, rather than through the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions (JCTU).
“I expressed that I understand their position, and I understand how this may have led to a misinterpretation of our intent, though no ill was intended,” Clarke stated.
He said the JCSA explained that the way in which it had received the information on the proposed discontinuation of benefits had led it to perceive that the Government’s position was final and non-negotiable.
However, that was not so, he said, and explained that the ministry “is simply grappling with the simple fact that the cost of delivering some of these benefits, on a per capita basis, is disproportional to what would be considered reasonable”.
Added Clarke, “In a country characterised by a chronic shortage of resources these realities cannot be ignored.”
According to the JCSA, a series of meetings between the parties will be held over the next few weeks, beginning on Wednesday, May 18.