Today was Cabinet Day, and Prime Minister John Briceno chaired a lengthy and weighty meeting at the House of Culture in Belize City. That's because he will present his first full budget on Friday - and the issue of the proposed pay cut for teachers and public officers hangs in the balance.
None of the official details have been disclosed yet about what came out of Cabinet, but after the session was over, we tried to get an interview with the Prime Minister. We contacted his PR staff in the hopes of getting a few words with him, but when he left the meeting area, it was clear that the PM wasn't going to grant any comments to us at the entrance of the House of Culture.
When his driver finally exited the compound, the PM's vehicle drove off with only a slight acknowledgment of our presence. He didn't roll his window down to give us a verbal refusal, and simply drove off.
Joint Unions Gave GOB A Firm "No"
And while that was a disappointment, the Prime Minister is probably being very careful, because he doesn't want to say anything that would upset the union at this very tense time in negotiations.
And that's just what we wanted to ask the PM about: the concluded budget talks between senior members of his administration and representatives of the Joint Unions Negotiating Team.
This weekend, while most Belizeans were out enjoying their Easter Holiday weekend, union representatives spent their Good Friday and Easter Monday in extensive talks with senior figures in the Briceno administration. They were having last-minute discussions on how to save 80 million dollars in public funds without touching the salaries of teachers and public officers.
And the unions continue to say NO to that proposed cut. The Joint Unions sent this response to Government in a letter on Saturday.
Just before midday, we spoke via teleconference with the First Vice-President of the Public Service Union, and he gave us a summary of how the holiday discussions went with the Government:
Dean Flowers - 1st VP, Public Service Union
"The unions were busy this weekend in an effort to try to figure out and sort out how best we could address the government's request for 80 million dollars to be shaved off the wage bill. For the most part, we spent the weekend analyzing our respective surveys, the results of which have not changed from previous surveys, which is that members are not amenable to a 10% salary cut. Members remain amenable to an additional year of increment freeze, with the understanding that Government will engage in frequent reviews."
"Yesterday, we met, and as is customary, we had a very cordial and respectable discussion with the government ministers."
"The government informed us they were grateful for the effort that we've made. They were grateful for the fact that as leaders, having an obligation to our respective constituencies, we've carried ourselves very respectfully and exemplary, and the other step now is for them to go back to Cabinet now to report that despite their best efforts, we were unable to reach an agreement for government to cut the salaries of public officers. So, Cabinet, I believe, is currently in session."
"The joint unions are not the Messiah. We cannot convert stone into bread, and definitely, we cannot come up with 80 million dollars within a month, as was the intent. And so, there has been no new proposal on identifying those 80 million dollars. But, the conversations continue to be improved and enhanced where a broken system is concerned that will yield better governance, better accountability, and will lead us to a path to sustainability and recovery. And that's where our focus is, on the bigger picture. We will not adopt a narrow view, of thinking that we can be cornered for 80 million dollars, and be misled into think that will fix our economic problems."
"We believe that there is a solution. We don't believe the solution is by way of salary cuts. We believe the solution is by way of political will of ridding ourselves of the excesses and putting in place those good governance structures."
"The 80 million dollars will not fix this economic crisis we're in. It will, as one government minister alluded to, make discussions and talk with the IFI's more palatable."
"Do you feel, based on how the conversation has been going - how it went that the wage cut is going to be an element of the budget presented on Friday?"
"We did not get that commitment from Government, but of course, one of the Government representatives was clear that it was a factor, that it was factored into discussions with the IFI's and therefore, it was factored into their projections where this budget is concerned. But, not having been privy to the draft estimates, I wouldn't be able to say if it's in there. And even if it's in there, that won't be validated until it's read and presented."
Reports say the Government side had offered the unions to shorten the work week by four hours and offer 10 million dollars in loan financing at the DFC, as well as give up an additional 5% salary cut taking it up to 15% total and to cut their telephone and entertainment allowance by 50%.
Government needs to bridge a 180 million dollar financing gap for the next fiscal year.