A Band-Aid For The Salary Cut

The PM addressed the entire nation Wednesday evening.

On the week that the pay cuts go into effect, he spoke on the good governance and the compensatory measures that the government is committed to taking to ease some of the strain and the pain that is sure to be caused by the 10% salary cut.

Here's an excerpt from his presentation where he speaks specifically to what he calls "the rationalization of the public service."

Hon. John Briceno, Prime Minister
"The ongoing rationalization of public service exercise. Numerous measures were proposed to public officers and teachers directly affected by the salary adjustment and increment freeze."

"Some of these that have not been accepted by the Unions include as follows:

a) Reduction of the workweek by 5 hours or more than ten percent of the workweek.

b) The issuance of a land credit in favor of affected public officers and teachers equivalent to 50 percent of the salary adjustment, which credit may be exercisable on the acquisition of government land by the holder of the land credit. For affected public officers who already own land, the credit could have been used in the settlement of outstanding land taxes owing by the affected public officer. The land credit though not assignable would have been applicable in favor of immediate family members, namely, spouses and children of the affected public officer.

Let me say again, Government remains committed to easing the adverse effects of the salary adjustment and increment freeze on affected public officers and teachers.

We are prepared to undertake the following:

a) Performance Bonus Option
b) National Health Insurance for Public Officers
c) Discounted data packages for teachers
d) Cash flow relief on loan payments
e) Waiver of Stamp Duty on Assignment of Residential Mortgages
f) Special Facilities at DFC and National Bank of Belize
g) Reduction of Ministers' Salaries and allowances and
h) Increments Remain Applicable to Pension Payments

Performance Bonus - Government shall pay in the form of an annual bonus, after the close of each of the current and next 2 fiscal years.

PM Promises Good Governance

And on those good governance measures, the PM outlined all the draft legislation that's been created to protect whistleblowers, reclaim wrongly distributed civil assets, and, finally, to table that manifesto-promised Campaign finance reform Bill.

Hon. John Briceno, Prime Minister
"Today I signed and sent to the Joint Unions a Letter of Government's Undertakings which sets out in clear and specific detail each and every action our Government is committed to taking along with our Social Partners, including the Unions, to advance our shared commitment to good governance and fiscal sustainability."

"Given the national importance of this matter, I will now share with you the details of these undertakings:

First Good Governance Reform

The Protected Disclosures/Whistleblowers Protection Bill, 2021

The Government fully endorses the need for whistleblowers' legislation to protect from civil, criminal, and disciplinary proceedings persons who report improper conduct such as commission of a criminal offense and conduct that shows gross mismanagement, impropriety, or misconduct in the carrying out of any activity that involves the use of public funds.

To that end, the Government has drafted the Protected Disclosures/Whistleblower Protection Bill, has delivered such draft to the Unions and the business community, and undertakes to the public that upon receipt of comments from the Unions by no later than May 18, 2021, it shall cause to be tabled before the House of Representatives by the end of June 2021 with a view to enactment thereof by the end of July, 2021."

The PM also stated that G.O.B will commit to an audit of the PetroCaribe fund.

We note the timing of the address, which comes on the cusp of meetings tomorrow - where Government hopes there will be a breakthrough and an end of the strike.

And, the PM's good governance performance also coincides with an escalation of the anti union ads on social media by the PUP's political arm - designed to weaken union resolve on the ground and at the negotiating table.

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PM Briceño Outlines Good Governance Measures to be Undertaken

The joint unions may not have been able to stop their salaries from being cut or their increments from being frozen, but the industrial action underway from the public service and teachers unions is also focused on anti-corruption and good governance.  There will be a meeting tomorrow between union leaders and government officials, but late this afternoon, Prime Minister John Briceño pre-empted those talks with a prepared video statement streamed on Facebook by the Government Press Office.  Briceño lamented that the unions decided to strike, amidst their ongoing consultations which began back in February as a part of the government’s budget exercise.  He said that yet the government’s team continued to meet with the joint unions over the past few weeks since the industrial action started.  Briceño says that today G.O.B. sent a written document to the joint unions about the good governance actions his administration is taking moving forward.

Prime Minister John Briceño

“The Protected Disclosures/Whistleblowers Protection Bill, 2021. The Government fully endorses the need for whistleblowers’ legislation to protect from civil, criminal and disciplinary proceedings persons who report improper conduct such as commission of a criminal offence and conduct that shows gross mismanagement, impropriety or misconduct in the carrying out of any activity that involves the use of public funds. To that end, the Government has drafted the Protected Disclosures/Whistleblower Protection Bill, has delivered such draft to the Unions and the business community and undertakes to the public that upon receipt of comments from the Unions by no later than May 18, 2021, it shall cause to be tabled before the House of Representatives by the end of June 2021 with a view to enactment thereof by the end of July, 2021. The Civil Asset Recovery and Unexplained Wealth Bill, 2021. Recognizing the grossly negligent and corrupt behavior of public officials in the past in the acquisition, management, handling and disposal of public assets, the Government fully supports the establishment of a law that provides for recovery of public assets wrongfully acquired or disposed of, including the provision for unexplained wealth orders against those persons whose total wealth exceeds the value of their wealth lawfully obtained. In that respect, consistent with the Unions’ request, the Government has drafted the Civil Asset Recovery and Unexplained Wealth Bill, and delivered the draft bill to the Unions and the business community. Upon receipt of comments from the Unions, which should be no later than the 8 of June 2021, it shall cause to be tabled before the House of Representatives.   We hope to have this bill enacted by the end of July of this year.”

Also among the good governance measures, PM Briceño committed to enacting a campaign financing law.  Briceño said that they have a draft campaign finance reform legislation from the business sector and unions which is under review with the Attorney General’s Ministry with a goal of creating a bill by the end of August. In addition, Briceño said that there will be a comprehensive audit of the Petro Caribe funds.

A Rundown of Proposals Rejected by Unions

In his address, PM Briceño says that his government is committed to complete, on an expedited basis, the ongoing rationalization of public service exercise. But according to Briceño, several of the measures that were proposed for public officers and teachers who will be directly affected by the salary adjustment and increment freeze, were rejected by the joint union representatives.  He outlined some of those measures on the table that were rejected.

Prime Minister John Briceño

“Some of these that have not been accepted by the Unions include as follows. Reduction of work week by five hours or more than ten percent  of the work week. The issuance of a land credit in favour of affected public officers and teachers equivalent to 50 percent of the salary adjustment, which credit may be exercisable on the acquisition of government land by the holder of the land credit.  For affected public officers who already own land, the credit could have been used in settlement of outstanding land taxes owing by the affected public officer.  The land credit though not assignable would have been applicable in favor of immediate family members, namely, spouses and children of the affected public officer.”

Proposals for Public Officers & Teachers! Ministers and C.E.O.s Take Cuts!

And now moving forward, Briceño says that they are prepared to commit to a number of measures that will directly benefit public officers and teachers, as well as some actions that the joint unions have been agitating for – like fifteen percent reduction in ministers’ salaries and allowances.  Briceño committed to an annual performance bonus for the end of the current and next two fiscal years, with some conditions.  Added to that, Briceño also shared that G.O.B. will ensure that increments remain applicable to pension payments which will be computed on the basis of emoluments that would have been applicable if the increment freeze had not been implemented.  Here are some of those commitments as outlined by PM Briceño.

Prime Minister John Briceño

“National Health Insurance for Public Officers – by no later than fiscal year 2023/2024, Government will establish a contributory health insurance scheme for public officers that covers medical, dental and vision care along with an ancillary death benefit.  Government will contribute eighty percent of the insurance premiums while participating public officers will contribute twenty percent. Cash Flow Relief on Loan Payments – The Central Bank of Belize has issued guidance to the banks and credit unions to extend the forbearance period on residential mortgages including those held by affected public officers and teachers to the end of this year.  Continued efforts will be made to urge leniency by banks and credit unions on residential mortgages including waiver of penalty fees whether on refinancing, transfer of loans or otherwise. Waiver of Stamp Duty on Assignment of Residential Mortgages — Cabinet has approved and a draft bill is being prepared to be tabled to the National Assembly for enactment of the waiver of stamp duties on the assignment of residential mortgages held by public officers and teachers. Special Facilities at D.F.C. and National Bank of Belize — Government will ensure that the Development Finance Corporation and the National Bank of Belize makes available special facilities of in or about three million dollars to five million dollars per institution for public officers and teachers for residential mortgages at preferred rates. Reduction of ministers’ salaries – ministers, ministers of state and area representatives will be subject to an increased total salary reduction of fifteen percent.  Ministers, Ministers of State and C.E.O.s will also surrender fifty percent of entertainment and telephone allowances.  It is understood that heads of department will continue to surrender their allowances as already agreed in fiscal year 2020/2021.”

According to Briceño, his government is also seeking to implement a recovery system through an integrated Tax Recovery Unit under the Belize Tax Services Department for outstanding tax arrears including business tax, G.S.T., land and income tax.  News Five looks forward to the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister additional questions about these proposals when, and if, a press conference is scheduled about the talks with the unions currently on strike.

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