GPSU President Patrick Yarde says government’s apparent lack of interest in and regard for commencing collective bargaining arrangements on wages, salaries and allowances for public servants is very “disturbing.”
Yarde’s criticism of government’s posture toward negotiations to increase the wages, salaries and allowances of public servants is nothing new, and his latest reproach stems from the fact that government has not made itself available for a single meeting on the matter since the year commenced.
This is despite statements from Minister of Public Service Jennifer Westford, Yarder says, that the Public Service Ministry (PSM) and the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) have recommenced negotiations to discuss workers issues.
During an interview, Yarde told Stabroek News that the union is still waiting for that meeting. He explained that the union met government earlier this year on another matter, and suggested that the minister might have sought to imply that that meeting dealt with salaries, wages and allowances. On June 6, Yarde wrote PSM Permanent Secretary Hydar Alley requesting that a meeting be convened “within five days to commence negotiations of wages, salaries and allowances for the year 2014…”
In the letter the union also told the ministry that it is “concerned that no action has so far been taken on the commitment given nationally by President Donald Ramotar and the [minister] since the union was never invited to any meeting with the government for 2014 to address increases in wages, salaries and allowances.”
It was not until Friday though, that the union received a response from Ally.
In correspondence dated June 12, but received yesterday, Ally told the union that “the (PSM) is currently engaging the Ministry of Finance on modalities regarding the issue of salary negotiations for public servants.” He then informed the union that it “will be informed in due course on the outcome of these discussions.
“That should have happened a long time ago,” an annoyed Yarde exclaimed as he repeated the content of the letter. “Why this level of tardiness in dealing with this matter when since in April government said how they would address that,” he continued. Yarde was referring to statements in April 7 edition of the Guyana Chronicle attributed to Westford: “to say that there is no salary increases for public servants is inaccurate and misleading. The fact that the quantum of monies to be paid to public servants will originate from the collective bargaining process between PSM and GPSU.”
He said that after a meeting earlier in the month the union received a mandate to press harder on government to get the problem sorted, but was lenient after the government official with whom they were supposed to be interfacing, encountered serious personal issues.
Yarde said he believes the official has been given enough time to consider the matter and he said he hoped government would have started to treat it “with more urgency since they publicly stated that they wanted an agreement.”
. During his first press conference this year the president told reporters that government was interested in commencing collective bargaining with the union as soon as possible, as opposed to arbitrarily imposing an increase as it has done for the past twelve years despite consistent promises to the union here and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that it would not do so.
Yarde said that the union will convene a meeting next Wednesday or Thursday to determine a response which will be sent to the ministry by June 20. Even as the union prepares to hold its meeting though Yarde says he has reservations about the PSM’s letter and the message therein. He says given the time it has had government should have been in a state of preparedness to engage the union, and he added that the PSM’s response is not encouraging at all.
Asked if the union is prepared to call an all-out strike in retaliation, Yarde, once again, expressed the union’s hesitance to call such a strike considering the far-reaching implications. He pointed to the 1999 strike to justify the union’s restraint in the matter.
The 1999 strike
Fed up with government’s maintained refusal to agree to arbitration on a dispute over increases in wages, salaries and allowances, the GPSU organised a massive strike which lasted for 57 days, and which brought most government activities to a grinding halt.
And, because many private sector activities also depend heavily on the work of public service employees it too was disrupted.
It took mediation from several civil society groups, including the Guyana Bar Association (GBA), the Private Service Commission (PSC), the Guyana Council of Churches and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to broker an agreement which saw an end to the strike. Yarde recalled that two members of each of the above-mentioned civil society groups formed the mediation group which brought an amicable end to the dispute.
One of the terms of the agreement, which was signed by all involved, including government and the GPSU, read: “In future, where salary and wages negotiations fail to result in agreements and third party conciliation of 30 days fails, it is agreed that until entrenched into the collective agreement, the parties will in respect of future disputes adopt the same methods of arbitration as set out in this agreement.”
Furthermore, it was agreed that “The Mediation Group shall monitor the deadlines set out in this TOR agreement.”
Yarde said that for more than a decade the government has broken the terms of the agreement (not to mention the ILO collective bargaining agreement it signed on to), and for ten years the union has waited on the Meditation Group to get involved. The union is still waiting. He said that while the issues relating to public servants’ wages, salaries and allowances only affects these workers, it speaks to the larger issue of government’s disregard for the rule of law and good governance.
Yarde argued that GPSU should not have to protest on its own. He instead argues that society, inclusive of the various civil society groups, should come out and protest against government’s behaviour. In the meantime though, the union will be considering its options.
Large-scale industrious action again?
As the union considers action questions have been raised of its ability, in its weakened state, to take action significant enough to compel government to negotiate.
Since 1999, government did away with the system which required union dues to be deducted directly from a public servant’s salary. This payment is not done manually and Yarde says the decision has cost the union billions in revenue. The move has also cost the union several thousand members as many persons, for various reasons, decided not to make the manual payments which meant there were no longer union members.
Whereas the union once had a membership of around 17,000, Yarde says membership currently stands at around 7000. Government’s move, he said, was engineered to diminish the union’s ability to represent its members, and though its finances were curtailed significantly, there were/many who are faithful in paying dues. This has allowed the union to persist, although questions about its ability to influence a favorable outcome for its members abound.