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Jan 31, 2005

GOB studies union proposals

Story PictureWith me now in studio are two of government?s lead negotiators, Minister Coye and Minister Godfrey Smith. What is the latest after what I know has been a very long weekend?

Godfrey Smith, Minister of Foreign Affairs
?The latest today is that we met with the National Trade Union Congress comprised of all their various representative unions. We met with them supported by some technical personnel and the persons of the financial secretary jury and with Yvette Alvarez. We have received from them a set of proposals containing new proposals in addition to the ones that they have previously submitted to us. Obviously, we were not in a position to give a full response at the time, since there were some very serious proposals put in there that we have seen for the first time. But we were able to offer them a preliminary reaction to the set of proposals. They asked that whatever response we give be put in writing, whatever things we felt that we should not commit to we should state the reason why we could not commit and we have said to them we will try to formulate government?s response as quickly as possible. Hopefully within twenty-four hours.?

Janelle Chanona
?That preliminary response was positive or negative??

Godfrey Smith
?Well, in some instances we were able to say right off we could do certain things and in other circumstances we said that we could offer consultation or that we simply couldn?t. For instance, they called for the enforcement of measures to collect all arrears of outstanding property taxes. We were able to say right off that yes, we are able to do that because at no time has it ever been government?s intension to slow down or back off collection of arrears off property taxes. Where it became more difficult for instance is where they called for the removal of the contractor general and the ombudsman because these people– as they put–were the guardians of public finances and allowed it–again in their words–to have deteriorate it to this state where it?s at. And we were able to say at that point for instance, that we thought is was a proposal they should reconsider. For example, the ombudsman, if you look at the act, the legislation governing him, the duties with which he is charged, you will note that they don?t really concern public finances. His duty is to try and ensure that there is an efficient and timely delivery of services across the spectrum of the public service. So we asked them to reconsider that for instance.?

?Where they called for a review of development concessions given to all holders of development concessions, we were able to react preliminarily saying yes, we are prepared to review the legislation, but where they called for all concessionaires who have held development concessions for ten years that those be terminated immediately, we had to say well hold on there. These things have legal ramifications. So where we could, we gave a preliminary reaction and where it was necessary to consult we said that we would have to consult on other proposals for a member of National Trade Union Congress to have a seat on the Central Bank. Obviously, we had no remit, no brief to deal with that. That?s something that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet have to consider and take a decision on. We promised to get back to them as soon as possible.?

Janelle Chanona
?Now if it had been my correct understanding, these precipices have been reached before. You?ve reached a point where you thought compromise is possible and would be able to move forward in such regard. Minister Coye, with both sides saying my back is against the wall and drawing lines in the sand, is there any indication at this point as who will break first? Who will say we can?t stay in this state for much longer??

Jose Coye, Minister of Works
?Well, looking at these most recent proposals, I would say that one of the most substantive matters that was there before is the tax matters and yes, while wages is also. But I think we have made progress at least from where we were originally. But looking at the proposal today, what I must say is that what they came to us for was just concepts in terms of what we can do to strengthen the tax administration. But there was no attempt to quantify the consequences of that in terms of the positive consequences. This time round what I noted is that they came with some figures, although there is where we can make some differences. I must say too that in the proposals before again, the proposal was saying no tax increase. So they didn?t make any provision. In the proposal I noted that they did put forward proposals where they believed we can bring in taxes for new tax measures. The differences we clearly have there is where should the incidents of the tax fall. So, you will find that in those areas, yes, we did make our observations that we note that you are agreeing to put forward the taxes. But it?s a question now where should the burden fall? So, I would say in those areas we have made some progress. At least we have something now that we can sit around the table with more definite.?

Janelle Chanona
?Would you have anything to add to that??

Godfrey Smith
?(No, I have) nothing different from what Minister Coye has said on that.?

Janelle Chanona
?Is the strike working? I know the unions feel that there is a pressure point that they are using at this time. But I?ve heard them say that we are the brains and the brawn of government. On the ground, is that what?s happening out there? Is government feeling the impact of what?s happening on the street??

Godfrey Smith
?I would say that the answer to that is yes. Take for instance with the teachers strike. The primary interest is that the children go back in school. We want the children go back in school. I think families and everybody would want things to resume as normal. We are trying our best to resolve the situation. Earlier in a question you asked you used an interesting word which is compromise and speaking for the government side, we would like to think that we have been compromising. Take for instance, the issue of reforms. There was a proposal put on the table that no taxation without reform and I think we were able to successfully agree over the weekend on all the reform measures put to us in that joint letter from the Trade Union Congress and the Chamber. Certain representatives from the Chamber, the Bureau and the Unions sat with us and were able to work out agreement to our satisfaction. It is my understanding that that set of proposals would be put on the floor of the special general meeting of the chamber tonight. So, certainly there has been compromise on our part.?

?You would be aware as well that whereas we had certain configurations for the payment of salary increases after sitting at the table with the teachers and general managers. We moved from a position where we are saying that it would be spread over three to a period now of two years. That matter is still on the table. So we are doing the best we possibly can to compromise on this position so that people can get back to work, children can get back to school and the country can continue functioning as fully as possible.?

Janelle Chanona
?Now one thing I?ve heard from the public is that one of the sticking points in accepting this new tax regime is that no one on the government side–and I mean no one meaning contract officers, members of the Peoples United Party Administration in government–has really left the scene. On the outside of it, a lot of people are looking at it and saying nothing has really changed and yet you are coming to me and saying we need new taxes. Will the government be exploring or is exploring substantial cutbacks in its employees, in its salaries? I know the PUP have an adverse reaction to the word retrenchment. But are you looking at stricter strategies??

Jose Coye
?What was brought up also in the proposal was to remind of the management audit that was done by the government. That of course was on the initiative of the reform that was taking place and in there is clearly a strategy to right size the public service, but not to retrench it. What that means simply is that we do have excesses in certain areas of the public service. Now those excesses can where their particular skills are suitable, be transferred into other areas and we have been doing that. We have been looking also at retraining and that have been working. Naturally, what we are saying is that those who retire, where we need not employ a new person, then we have excess and we can take that in. So, while we are saying no retrenchment, certainly we work towards right sizing to bring increase productivity within the public service. So, the new management audit is being looked at. We have the survey that has been done and we are implementing that.?

Janelle Chanona
?Tonight what is the next step? Is it to take this proposal package to the Prime Minister for his review and assessment??

Godfrey Smith
?Yes, certainly.?

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