The Christmas bonus: Are others not deserving of it?

Accountability Watch

Your right is to work only and never to the fruit thereof. Be not instrumental in making your actions bear fruit, nor let your attachment be to inaction.

Bhagavata Gita, Chapter II verse 45

Introduction
At the recent Army’s annual Christmas luncheon, the President announced a one-month’s pay as a Christmas bonus for the disciplined services, comprising the Army, the Police, the Fire Department and the Prison Service. This practice commenced under the administration of former President Jagdeo.

As I began preparing this article, two other related news items caught my eye. The first was a statement from the Minister of Labour that the five per cent increase the Government is offering has nothing to do with the demands of the Public Service Union. Rather, it is an independent initiative to ensure that public servants are financially capable of enjoying the Christmas season. The increase is retroactive to 1 January 2012. The other news item relates to the stalemate between the two unions representing the workers of GPL and management over proposals for salary increases.

The idea of bonus pay
Bonus pay is compensation over and above the regular weekly and monthly wages and salaries specified in employees’ contracts of employment. It is a form of “thank you” to individual employees or teams for achieving significant goals or for exceptional performance. Customer service employees sometimes receive a bonus where the organisation receives positive feedback from consumers about employees.
Bonus pay helps to improve employee morale, motivation and productivity, and provides an incentive for higher levels of both individual and team performance. It also helps to attract and retain good-quality people who can make a positive impact on the bottom-line results of the organisation.  Bonus pay, however, is potentially unpredictable and can be perceived as arbitrary. Many employees may prefer an increase in the base pay, and if consolidated can make a difference to their pensionable benefits.

Bonus pay and the Guyana experience
Bonus pay is a normal practice in the Private Sector, especially for entities that are profit-oriented. The award is dependent on the overall performance of the entity. While individual performance may be considered acceptable, if overall performance is unsatisfactory, management may be under pressure to decide whether a bonus is payable, and if so, what should be the quantum. It was just a bad year for the organization. However, in order not to disappoint employees and to lift their spirits during the festive season, a smaller-than-normal bonus may be payable.

Historically, bonus pay was not applicable to the operations of Government since it is a public service provider, in contrast to profit-oriented entities, and there are other compensatory benefits.  The Guyana Sugar Corporation, however, pays bonuses when production targets are achieved, a practice that was inherited from Bookers. My earliest recollection of bonus pay was when I was growing up. My father was a cane cutter at the Albion Estate. When production targets were reached, a bonus was paid, and the much-needed additional source of income was appreciated.

Later in life, as a junior accountant working with a private sector organization, I did receive a Christmas bonus equivalent to about a month’s salary. I can recall the weeks before Christmas when everyone tried to be at their best in terms of attitude, performance and discipline in order to impress their supervisors in the hope to being awarded with a sizeable bonus.

Bonus pay and the Government
While one does not have problem with the Disciplined Services receiving a Christmas bonus, the concern is other categories of Government workers, especially civil servants, teachers, nurses, university workers and lecturers, magistrates and judges, who are overlooked.

I publicly expressed my concern at the extent to which contracted employees are employed in the Public Service and the level of emoluments and other conditions of services offered to them vis-à-vis employees in the traditional public service. In effect, there are two public services: the elitist one comprising contracted employees appointed by the heads of ministries and departments, most probably after consultation with the concerned Ministers in the case of senior appointments; and the traditional public service comprising the ordinary public servants appointed by the Public Service Commission. The argument put forward is that it is difficult to find persons to fill the positions unless special salaries and conditions of service are offered to them. The same argument is advanced for the retention of persons beyond retirement age. Needless to mention, I do not find justification in these arguments, especially when one considers the basis under which these persons are selected.

What is also of concern is the almost non-existent representation that employees of the traditional public service obtain from their trade unions to address the issue. Imagine how the morale and motivation of these hardworking public servants are affected when contracted employees work along with them or are supervised by them. That apart, our civil servants toil daily to keep the engines of government up and running. Some of them work beyond the call of duty without any additional compensation, especially during budget preparation as well as in the finalization of the accounts for audit.

I have been a schoolteacher and a university lecturer and I know how hard these people work to provide an education for our children and youths, only to see the majority of them either leave our shores to further their studies and to settle overseas, or migrate to provide for a better life for themselves and their families. In order to supplement their incomes, many teachers offer extra lessons for a fee. Their working conditions in most cases are also far from satisfactory, and the same applies to the university lecturers at Turkeyen.

I was once lecturing at Turkeyen and the class size was about 120. However, the room was so small that there was hardly any space to move around. Some of the students had to stand in the corridor to listen to the lecture and to take notes. Imagine how much effort it took to mark the in-term assignments of these students as well as their final examination papers. At the end of the course, I decided to discontinue lecturing.  The physical environment was just not conducive for the effective delivery of the course. The question is: Are teachers and lecturers not deserving of  treatment similar to that of the Disciplined Services in the form of a reward or an incentive for their efforts? What about our nurses, many of whom have to work odd hours to maintain a 24-hour a day service, not to mention the working conditions that they have to endure?

The five per cent increase for public servants
The Minister of Labour stated that the Government’s offer of a five per cent increase is to ensure public servants are financially capable of enjoying the Christmas season. Salary increases are offered mainly to cushion the effects of inflation, which in Guyana was estimated at 4.5 per cent in 2012.  There is therefore hardly any real increase. This apart, why make the payment in December retroactive to the beginning of the year?
Take employees who, at the beginning of the year, have barely enough income to meet their basic living expenses. Since they will feel the effects of inflation as early as in January, how are they to meet the 4.5 per cent shortfall throughout the year?  Having received this accumulated shortfall in December, should they fritter it away to enjoy the Christmas season, as suggested by the Minister? If this is the intention, is there an expectation that there will be another increase for 2012 after negotiations are concluded with the Public Service Union?

The GPL salary increase issue
I was at the GPL Head Office some time ago to pay my electricity bill. The line was so long and the pace at which the cashiers were operating caused me to spend more than one hour in the line. I changed my plan and started to pay my bills at the Post Office. Once, the Charlestown Post Office ran out of receipt books so I went to the GPL Head Office. When I saw the line again, I abandoned my effort and went to the Bourda Post Office. On another occasion, the electricity people came to cut off my electricity.
Luckily, I was at home and I brought out my receipt to show them. However, they were unmoved because they were relying on the information that GPL provided to them on my indebtedness. When I eventually I told them that I paid my bills at the Post Office, they exclaimed “Why you didn’t tell us before?”

I read in the newspapers that GPL intends to raise the reconnection fee to six times one’s monthly light bill. At $15,000 per month, my reconnection fee will be $90,000. I am currently overseas and I have asked a relative to check my mailbox and to pay my bill as soon as it arrives. I hope the Public Utilities Commission looks into the matter.
Are all these inefficiencies the result of unsatisfactory pay and/or a lack of incentives, such as a Christmas bonus? It is sad to note that the year is ending, and the unions and management are still haggling over the quantum of the salary increase employees should get for 2012.

Conclusion

Employees are the greatest asset of an organisation and they will give of their best if they are treated fairly. We need to have a uniform professionalized public service and to provide the employees with incentives that will reward their good performance, motivate them to achieve higher levels of performance, and to make them more customer-oriented. Salary increases should also be offered at the beginning of the year and not at Christmas time retroactive to the beginning of the year.
On a final note, public servants are trained to serve the government of the day and will give of their best if they are treated fairly. We need a public service that we should feel proud of irrespective of which government is in power. Governments may come and governments may go. However, it is the public service that provides the institutional memory for continuity. Treat them well and they will deliver beyond expectation.

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