Dr Nigel Clarke has made an emotional appeal for patience to disgruntled public sector workers, saying that the marathon compensation review is now in the home stretch and the finish line is in sight.
Dr Clarke, the finance minister, pleaded the Government’s case in a column published in today’s edition of this newspaper as the Andrew Holness Administration battles to recover from a bruising week of industrial action in the public sector that has cost the country millions of dollars and widened a trust deficit between the State and its employees.
Giving a detailed chronology of the compensation review, Dr Clarke noted that many people were convinced that, while it was necessary, it would never happen, given “the inordinate complexity of the exercise, the sheer breadth and range of its application, the magnitude of the changes required, and the risk to any Government that embarked on such a process”.
He said, though, that with the support of public sector unions, “and the dogged determination of many”, the country is now “within striking distance of the most profound and comprehensive structural changes to public sector compensation by any administration”.
“These changes are designed to simplify public sector compensation overall, improve transparency, increase equity and fairness, and improve compensation levels while retaining the sustainability of Jamaica’s finances,” Dr Clarke said.
He pointed to what he described as Jamaica’s “tortuous economic and fiscal experience over the last several decades” and acknowledged that the wage freeze agreed by public sector workers over the past 12 years, across administrations, has not been easy.
“In fact, it has been excruciatingly difficult. And there have been unspoken costs. For one, faith and trust in Government, as a permanent institution across time, to deliver for public sector employees has suffered over this period,” Dr Clarke said.
“Despite the success of heads of agreements, signed between the Government and union leaders, the trust deficit between Government and the public sector employee widened. In addition, the wells of public sector dissatisfaction with respect to compensation swelled,” he argued.
However, the wage restraint, he said, was necessary for Jamaica’s economic survival. “And for completeness, Jamaica made a conscious and explicit social policy choice to retain the employment base of the public sector and instead pursue fiscal wage adjustment through sustained wage restraint instead of through workforce reduction.”
He said that while some bargaining groups were ahead of the Government in their agitation for change, “what was needed instead was a comprehensive, across-all-of-government compensation reform”.
The Administration, Dr Clarke said, was able to generate support from unions and bargaining groups, over the last five years, to await the government-wide compensation reform.
However, the consultations with all groups, he said, will take time and must be sequenced. “For better or worse we have made a decision to conclude consultations with 47 central government unions and bargaining groups first, to be followed by the 140 public bodies. Conditioned on progress with central government that facilitates timely implementation we project to engage public bodies by November, more or less consistent with the timeline provided to the National Water Commission (NWC),” he explained.
Last week’s slew of industrial action began on Tuesday morning when NWC workers cut supplies islandwide for two days. That was followed on Thursday by air traffic controllers who stopped working 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, the Jamaica Civil Service Association (JCSA) indicated its intention to call a strike if the Government failed to address the organisation’s concerns about claims it wanted settled in advance of the compensation review.
On Friday afternoon, though, the JCSA withdrew the strike notice after a meeting with Dr Clarke.
Noting the week of disruptions, Dr Clarke asked the public sector employees to be patient.
“We need the same patience which allowed the hard-working teams to complete four years of work, setting up the policy framework for this reform, engaging the public sector about its key elements, procuring and engaging the services of multinational consultants, collecting and analysing data on 110,000 jobs, designing and completing surveys, modelling, forecasting, and communicating,” he said in the column.
“After enduring the road phase of this reform marathon, we have now entered the stadium and are actually on the home stretch, in full visibility of the finishing line. It is supreme patience that got us here. As close as we are, we cannot now afford to collapse on the track. Instead, fuelled by that same patience, for just a few more months, we can make it across the finish line,” the finance minister stated.
See original version of Dr Clarke’s column to the Jamaica Observer: With patience, let us allow daylight to finally emerge