The jury is out on the negotiations for public officers. Angered by the Chief Personnel Officer’s offer of two per cent for an eight-year bargaining period, public officers are threatening to shut down the country in the near future. Their threat prompted an appeal from Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley on Sunday that they should not overreact and that there was no need to shut the country down.
On the face of it, the two per cent offer seems insulting to those who feel they are deserving of more, having been asked to hold strain and tighten their belts during the period in question, even as the cost of living soared.
Their anticipation of much better may perhaps have been spurred by none other than Finance Minister Colm Imbert, who, during his presentation of the Mid-Year Budget Review, painted a rosy picture of the state of the economy, as a result of increased oil and gas earnings brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But the minister must know that the $1.98 billion surplus achieved at the end of April is a one-off thing which could collapse as easily as the invasion, something the PM noted as he appealed to public servants to align their demands—noted to be as much as 25 per cent for some bodies—a little more conservatively.
In this scenario, both sides need to be responsible.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Rowley gave some of the figures that will come with the current proposed two per cent increase, which he said would add TT$1 billion to the current $8.7 billion wage bill. And with this will come a recurring monthly cost of $411 million. If the Government were to go to a four per cent agreement, there will be a running cost increase of $588 million and at 10 per cent, there will be an increased running cost of $1.1 billion, but all calculations equating to a bigger recurring wage burden.
But the reality is that the recurring cost of salary increases on the national treasury will be a difficult burden to carry unless there is a windfall the likes of which Minister Imbert spoke to during the Mid-Year Review indefinitely. However, no one knows what will happen to energy prices or the world economy tomorrow, next week or next month.
Now there is no denying that the cost of living has increased, things are difficult and workers require salary increases in line with their needs. Does the country, however, realistically have the money to carry the cost? Maybe not.
There have also been times in the past when salaries were paid late and money had to be borrowed to pay the public sector salaries. This and the possibility of job cuts could be the reality T&T faces with unrealistic wage increases if the unexpected revenue Government recently received does not continue to flow.
This is why caution is needed and these negotiations must take place in a realistic environment. Unfortunately, when workers get the message of milk and honey after a prolonged dry spell, it becomes difficult to convince them taking a little is better than nothing at all.
Still, this is a time when all heads must meet at the table and come up with a workable solution.