One of the major talking points coming out of the $53 billion 2020 budget delivered by Finance Minister Colm Imbert last week Monday (Oct 7th) was the increase in salaries for CEPEP (Community-Based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme) and URP Unemployment Relief Programme) workers of 15 per cent.
The move was hailed by some as a good one but criticized by others as being a local government election ploy.
At the time of the budget presentation, the election date was not known, however, 4 days later during the commencement of the debate the Prime Minister announced December 2 as the date of the polls.
In delivering the fiscal package, Minister Imbert said “Madam Speaker, I propose to increase the wages of CEPEP workers by 15 per cent and also to increase the fees paid to CEPEP contractors by 15 percent. These measures will take effect from December 1, 2019. Unemployment Relief Programme Madam Speaker, I propose to increase the wages of URP workers by 15 percent. This measure will take effect from December 1, 2019.”
But in analysing the budgeted figures Political Scientist Dr Bishnu Ragoonath encountered discrepancies that he felt requires some answers.
He said, “That was a nice trick that the Minister of Finance played upon all of us and particularly so the workers of CEPEP and URP and if you understand what has happened, what the Minister of Finance didn’t tell us is simply this that the budget for CEPEP has been reduced for 2019/2020.”
He explained that the budget has been reduced by more than 15 million dollars, “now what that would mean is that if you are taking the same budget from last year and you were going to increase people’s salary by 15 per cent, let’s just say they were working 9 months last year, 8 months this year and when you reduce the budget by a further 15 million dollars, you’ll probably be working 7 months.”
He said the Minister of Finance did not make this fact known when he read the budget.
“But for us who have analysed the data and the estimates of expenditure, it is clear that they have reduced the budget (to CEPEP). So if you are keeping the same pool of workers but you have increased their salaries and you have reduced the sum they going to work for less and that’s an election ploy….it’s either you work less in terms of length or less in terms of numbers.”
When Guardian Media looked at the budget documents it showed that for 2018/2019 the CEPEP company received $369,613,280 and for 2019/2020 the allocation is 347,876,000, meaning that CEPEP is actually receiving 21,737,280 less this time around. There was no explanation given in the document.
As it relates to URP, in 2018/2019 the programme received $6,157,000 and in 2019/2020 it will receive $6, 505, 000. This indicated an increase of $348,000.
In the explanations column, it said “Includes provision for vacant posts with incumbents.”
When Guardian Media contacted Minister of Rural Development and Local Government Kazim Hosein, the minister with responsibility for CEPEP, on Friday afternoon, he was with councillors of the San Fernando City Corporation launching their local government campaign but agreed to speak.
When asked about the lower budget for CEPEP Minister Hosein said “We have a certain amount of contractors and a certain amount of workers and that is the allocation we received to handle that full amount. That is what happened in the last budget too.”
When asked about the promise of increased salaries with less money being allocated, he replied “we never had any problem with funding for CEPEP since I am there.”
The minister was then asked more pointedly that if an increase is being given then how is the allocation less than last year.
He then requested that the questions be sent to him and he would source the information and offer a better response.
A screenshot of the budget document and questions were immediately sent to the Minister but clarification was not received up to press time.
Acting Chairman of CEPEP Marilyn Michael was also contacted on the matter but indicated that she was under the weather at the time and was unable to facilitate the interview.
She promised to do so when in better health.
This issue is also one of concern for the opposition, former Minster of Housing and Urban Development, who oversaw CEPEP for five years, Dr Roodal Moonilal described it as a deception.
“There is the possible loss of jobs because can’t finance an organisation that you are now increasing its labour bill and reducing the overall subvention to the company so that clearly they are going to downsize and retrench CEPEP contractors and workers,” Moonial said.
He said another area of worry is “the “majority of CEPEP workers work for the minimum wage when you increase their salary by 15 per cent it is less than the new minimum wage and this is illegal.”
He said what should be done is the new $17.50 minimum wage should be applied to the worker’s salaries first then apply the 15 per cent increase to it.
He said the government must clarify this fact.
Guardian Media made several attempts to contact Minister of Finance Colm Imbert on the claims being made, via calls, texts, and WhatsApp but all to no avail.