Gov’t denies withholding budgeted funds from public servants

-entire $4B allocation for revised wages never intended for increase, official says

Government is denying that it has withheld some $3 billion approved in the national budget for from public servants, with a high ranking official yesterday explaining that funds budgeted for the revision of wages and salaries were not intended to be used only for the public servant wage hike.

The denial came even as attempts at conciliation between the Public Service Ministry and the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) resulted in gridlock and a recommendation by the Labour Ministry, which is acting as a mediator, for the two sides to resume meeting early next year.

The GPSU has accused the government of arbitrarily imposing a 5% hike on public servants outside of collective bargaining and pointed out that in addition to the allocation of $29,130 billion to meet expenditure for wages and salaries, a further $4.404 billion, representing a 15.12% increase, was approved for the revision of wages and salaries.

The nurses and other workers during Thursday’s protest at the Fort Wellington Hospital
The nurses and other workers during Thursday’s protest at the Fort Wellington Hospital

But a high-ranking government official who helped work on the drafting of the 2013 budget and who spoke yesterday on condition of anonymity, explained that the funds budgeted for the revision were not intended to be used solely for the increase of wages and salaries. The official explained that when the budget was drafted, provisions for wages and salaries are made for public servants who are already employed by the government.

The revision, he said, was placed in the budget to cater for several things, including salaries for new staff that would have been added to the public sector’s payroll; to pay increased salaries to promoted staff; and to cover any other shortfalls that might have occurred.

The entire sum, the official said, was never to be used to increase salaries. The decision to give public servants a 5% increase retroactive to January, he added, was made subsequent to the enactment of the Appropriations Act with the President’s assent. Although the official could not say exactly when the decision was made to pay 5%, he said that the decision was taken after government assessed how much money it was capable of using for this purpose.

The official also said that Public Service Minister Jennifer Westford was correct when she said that the government just does not have the funds to pay more than a 5% increase.

This, he said, is because the amount of funds the government has at its disposal is fixed.

Asked if the growth Guyana’s economy experienced last year should have enabled the government to have more money to put towards an increase, he also said that it was the growth experienced which allowed the 5% to be paid.

Meanwhile, Labour Minister Nanda Gopaul yesterday told Stabroek News that the ministry, acting as the mediator between the Public Service Ministry and the GPSU, facilitated a meeting between the two parties on Thursday in a bid to have the dispute resolved before the conflict progressed.

Gopaul said he was informed that the Public Service Ministry maintained that it cannot afford to pay more than a 5% increase to public servants because the money is not available, while GPSU maintained that what is being offered is not enough. The meeting ended without compromise and consensus between the parties. As a result, Gopaul said, it has been recommended that the two parties meet early in the coming year to thrash out the issue before the situation further deteriorates.

GPSU president Patrick Yarde has stated that the increase and explanations by government seeking to justify it are unacceptable. On Thursday, Yarde said the union intends to intensify its struggle against the arbitrary imposition of the increase, while adding that it was prepared to engage in civil disobedience ahead of a decision by its General Council on how to proceed.

He noted that  no decision has been made as yet on industrial action, while explaining that the union would be reluctant to take such a course since it can have negative implications for innocent Guyanese.

 ‘We ain’t living, we surviving’

According to Yarde, workers in Bands 1 to 4, who make up in excess of 75% of the the public service, will see their salaries increase by less than $2,500 per month with the 5% increase.

Many workers are convinced that they deserve an increase, particularly in the light of the high cost of living. One woman said that she voted for the PPP/C and is saddened that government functionaries continue to make so much with their salaries that make them comfortable, while she has to pray for the next pay-day to come every month. “This is nah what I vote fuh,” she said.

Another public servant, a man, said that he was offended by statements by Westford, who said that he should be happy with 5%. “That woman has never known, or has forgotten what it is like to work for $60,000 a month. The money probably seem nuff, but when you done pay rent, light bill, phone bill, wife bill and children bill, oh and don’t forget you got to pay the tax bill, you still gotta buy food. We ain’t living in this country, we surviving, and even that we barely doing,” he said.

Neither of them wanted to have their names mentioned because they feared victimisation.

Some union members have already taken action. Nurses and Guyana Geology and Mines Commission workers have demonstrated against the increase and the former yesterday continued with sick outs for a second day at public healthcare facilities in Georgetown, the West Demerara and Berbice.

On Thursday nurses at the Fort Wellington Hospital joined their colleagues in other regions and staged a “sit-in.”

Joined by other workers, they reiterated the call for a higher increase, saying that they are barely surviving on their meagre income. They carried placards that read, “For years now 5% has been a total eye pass. We need chicken not sweets,” “Public servants are not Christmas ponies,” “Minister Westford don’t let Dr Luncheon throw 5% blame on you,” and “$29 B for wages and salaries, $4 B passed for revision of salaries and equals 15%. What happened to the 10%?”

Karen Haywood, an executive member of the GPSU, promised to continue the protest until the matter has been resolved. “Government has the money and can afford to pay us. Christmas is coming and we need our money… This is unfair to us. We are not public slaves, we are public servants,” Haywood, who is also a nurse at the institution, said.

Chanting “no money, no wuk,” the nurses told this newspaper that five per cent is “unreasonable from the government. We are public servants and we are struggling. As workers we are going to fight for more.”

The nurses also lamented that they are receiving $4,000 for meal allowance. One of them questioned, “What can $4,000 buy? Give the parliamentarians that for one month and see how long it would last them.”

They are receiving $13,000 uniform allowance and said it is not enough. According to them, paying a decent wage to the public servants would prevent “brain drain”. “Those at the top are getting richer and richer while we continue to suffer,” one nurse said.

 Solidarity

The Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) yesterday publicly voiced its supports GPSU’s position. In a statement, GTUC condemned the proposed 5% increase, while adding that it was particularly concerned that the pay-out is in violation of the protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual protected in Article 147 of the Constitution and the Trade Union Recognition and Certification Act.

“Public Servants for the twelfth year have had to deal with the disregard for their right to freedom of association and collective bargaining,” it said.

The GTUC also argued that the fact that President Donald Ramotar and Minister Westford have a history of working for public servants via unions makes their actions in this situation even worse. “President Donald Ramotar came from the bowels of the movement and held executive positions in GAWU and the original FITUG,” it noted, while adding that Westford was “once a militant activist of the GPSU and served as a representative of the General Council.”