In yesterday's news, we brought you a press conference from the joint union, namely the Public Service Union and the Belize National Teachers Union. One of their main issues is their frozen increments - which have been that way for three years. They demanded that GOB restore them by April 1st or else.

And it seems the government is going to find out what that means. The prime minister reiterated today that they cannot afford to restore increments and even doubled down on his comments that the public officers made no "sacrifices" in the early parts of the pandemic - even though the unions have clarified that their increments were frozen since before the PUP were elected.

However, the PM said that if the unions want to strike, well, they have every right to.

John Briceno, Prime Minister
"Well, I have always start with the premise that the unions they have a right to strike and if they believe they need to strike, they can strike. It is their right in this country. What is important to us is that we do the right thing. When we met with the joint unions in early 2021 we laid the facts on them that Belize was at the verge of bankruptcy. We had no money to be able to pay them and that we all had to do some sort of sacrifice, because let me point out that during the pandemic the public officers all of them collected 100% of their salaries. But if you were to ask people in the private sector, many people lost their jobs and even many more got significant pay cuts. I remember the people at LOVE FM, they had to cut their salaries by more than 50% just to have something for them. So they got their full 100% of their salaries. So it was time for them to be able to make some sacrifice."

"We could have been political of the decision back then, because one of the recommendations from the IMF was that we need to fire or dismiss at least 3,000 employees and we in good conscience just could not do that."

"I mean these 3,000 could have been quite likely UDP supporters, because we have not been hiring anybody for the past 13 years. So we felt and we sat with them and said let us all so some sort of sacrifice so that we can get out of this together and I appreciate that finally they manage to grudgingly accept the sacrifice, the pay cuts for 3 years and also the freeze of increments for 3 years."

"One year afterwards we gave back the increments. Here we are now at the end of second year, we are about to start the 3rd year and we have been discussing with them. We have said we are prepared to take a look at the issue of now restoring the increments. Of course, it will start now. It's not going to be going back, it's going forward, but also we are making the point to the unions that: 1) increments supposed to be based on merits. It's not an automatic increment and secondly, we also have to look at the issue of pension reform. Belize is one of probably few countries in the world where the pension is paid by the tax payers 100%. So we have to find a way where we can protect or come up with what we call a "grandfather" clause whereby those that are in the system for a certain number of years that they do not lose, because it would be fair to them, but we also have to come up with a new formula. A formula about the public officer and the government combine would make payments towards a pension for them. That is the way it works everywhere in the world."

And yesterday you heard the PSU president say that he feels the government has a vendetta against the unions. But today the PM said that he does see the unions as partners and he's willing to meet at the start of the fiscal year if they want to. He added though that the pension reform IS happening.

John Briceno, Prime Minister
"It's not a matter of not wanting to unfreeze the increments. It's a matter of sitting down and talking with them. I have said this to them already in a joint meeting that we had around the middle of December. I have explained this to them, so this is nothing new. The point is that it is unsustainable and as a country we cannot afford it. The higher that goes up, the less we have for education, the less we have for health, the less we have to provide the necessary infrastructure development in the country, the less we have for housing. So it is important for us to be able to sit down as partners to be able to work on this."

"Again, I want to put on record that we recognize the unions as our partners. We want the same thing. They love Belize as much as I do and I love Belize as much as they do. We might have different opinions, but at the end of the day I think both parties have to come together to be able to make the decisions what is best in the best interest of the country of Belize and its citizens."

Reporter
"When is this pension scheme scheduled to roll out?"

John Briceno, Prime Minister
"I think the deputy prime minister supposed to be calling a meeting shortly with them, so that our ministers can meet with them to be able to start have this discussion. We are getting proposals both from I think Mr. Montaz who has been the actuary for Social Security for a few decades now. He is writing a proposal and also the IMF has come up with a proposal and I am hoping that the IMF can meet with them and make that presentation as another option for what we have."

"We can meet April 1st. It all depends on them, if they are prepared to negotiate seriously and work with what we have in front of us. If we can't finish the negotiations by the 1st April, then it has to continue. But if they want, we could do it in one sitting. It's simple. It's a matter of what needs to be done and they know what needs to be done. So I want to say that."

Channel 7