Will there be free collective bargaining?

On Thursday, for the third consecutive year, the APNU+AFC government unilaterally announced hikes in wages and salaries for 14,000 public servants and computed how much this will cost.

Minister of State Joseph Harmon told a post-Cabinet press briefing that government had made its final offer to the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU). This offer expands the monthly minimum wage from $55,555 to $60,000. Further, those earning between $55,555 and $99,999 will receive an 8% hike; those earning between $100,000 and $299,999 will receive a 6% increase; those earning between $300,000 and $499,999 will receive a 5% increase; those earning between $500,000 and $699,999 will receive a 4% increase; those earning between $700,000 and $799,000 will receive a 2% increase; and those making between $800,000 and $1 million will receive a 0.5% increase.

What is of immense concern is whether the APNU+AFC government will permit free collective bargaining in determining the wages and conditions of public servants. Thus far the government is in egregious breach of a promise which marks it again as untrustworthy in the commitments that it gave prior to the May 11th, 2015 General Elections.

At no less than the 2015 May Day celebrations at the Critchlow Labour College and just 10 days before the election that catapulted him into office, President Granger gave a solemn commitment to the workers gathered there that unlike under the PPP/C, free collective bargaining would underpin wage negotiations.

He said then that APNU+AFC was making a pact with the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC)  and labour unions in Guyana for the resuscitation of collective bargaining should it win the May 11th general and regional polls.

“It is a contract between the next government and the union represented by the GTUC,” Granger told attendees at the rally, as he presented a copy of the coalition’s manifesto to GTUC General Secretary Lincoln Lewis as a symbolic commitment to the pact.

Granger further promised that should the coalition be elected, no longer will workers be forced to accept a forced “lil freck at the of the year” but instead they would see their respective unions engaging in collective bargaining for mutually-accepted agreements.

“We guarantee you that we will stand behind unions so that unions can sit down with employers and restore collective bargaining… it is back to the bargaining table; that is what APNU+AFC will give you. No more frecks!” he told the exuberant crowd, which chanted, “No more 5%.”

It will be a matter for some debate whether what has just been announced by the government as a final offer isn’t the same `freck’ that was derided.

The President  had also said on May 1, 2015 that the coalition had seen a social impact programme that was compiled by the GTUC and endorsed it. He added then that the programme calls on government for restoration of collective bargaining. “I would like to say now that I endorse the need for what the GTUC calls a social compact. It is an agreement between various partners of society. What we want to see is that there are clear objectives of where this compact/contract will take us,” Mr Granger added.

He also pointed out to the GTUC that the agreement must be based on the fact that the working class must have a good life. He said it must also have organisation and a structure and there should be the establishment of a mechanism for implementation. He further said there must be instruments, constitutional, legal and otherwise, to comply with the contract so that by the end of the next Parliament, workers and the population at-large can determine if desired outcomes were achieved.

Needless to say, there was no progress on a social compact but how much more solid a commitment to collective bargaining can there be in those words on May Day? Yet the APNU+AFC administration has breached the promise of collective bargaining twice in a row and appears heading in the same direction again. Perhaps given the general election in May of 2015 and the very short period for preparation of a budget, the government could have been excused for imposing a unilateral increase for the year 2015. However, it was inexcusable for 2016 and it now appears a similar fate awaits public servants.

APNU+AFC appears to be following the pattern set by the PPP/C. Start negotiations late in the year, October in this case, make a couple of offers, declare an end to talks and make a payout in the expectation that the public servants will gratefully accept what has been offered.

It is now left to be seen what the GPSU will do.  Its President Patrick Yarde recently accepted the unusual offer from President Granger to be Chairman of the Public Service Commission. Will this colour how he and his union responds to this latest unilateral action by the government? Thus far the union has been silent on the “final offer” by the government. Public servants will now wait to see what happens to free collective bargaining if the union insists on moving to conciliation and ultimately, arbitration. Of course, it has been nearly two decades since the GPSU has made any serious attempt at agitation over wages so public servants shouldn’t hold their breath.

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