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Falling victim to NIB wage dispute

In the ordinary course of things, the late payment of Government cheques to citizens would reflect poorly on the relevant department and its payroll employees. But when the cheques are for pensioners, the disabled and the unemployed, such tardiness goes beyond mere inefficiency and becomes an atrocity.

In a press advertisement printed last weekend, the Ministry of the People and Social Development announced that some pensioners, persons with disabilities and the unemployed would be getting their State grants by mid-April. The Ministry has blamed this delay on protests by National Insurance Board employees who are now in wage negotiations.

Even for the financially stable, such delays in expected payments are upsetting but, for elderly persons and the disabled, a shortage of funds can be a matter of life and death. According to the 2000 census, Trinidad and Tobago has more than 120,000 persons over the age of 60. A good proportion of them depend entirely on these cheques for their monthly expenditure and have little or no savings cushion. Thus, a delay of two weeks can put such persons in dire straits.

This is even more the case for many people with disabilities, most of whom are in the care of their families who depend on these grants to pay for the extra care disabled persons need. Indeed, the 20,000 persons who are both over 65 years of age and disabled would doubly suffer since they now have to wait an extra two weeks for their expected funds.

Ironically, the group best able to withstand this delay is the unemployed, since there are only about 37,000 unemployed persons in T&T, not all of whom are seeking unemployment assistance from the State. Such persons usually have some way to get by, even if "getting by" means having enough food to eat while they look for a job. Among the over 50,000 disabled persons in the country, however, only 15 per cent have jobs, for obvious reasons.

These, then, are the groups who have been put under unnecessary stress this month because of the declining industrial relations climate in the country. And a core question here is why and how negotiators allow matters to reach this pass? It bespeaks a lack of compromise and reasonable discourse on the part of both employers and unions.

While the rest of the world is moving toward the alternative dispute resolution approach, which aims for win-win solutions, acrimony and conflict are becoming the order of the day in T&T. This is rooted in a lack of trust on all sides and, in the case of NIB, an inexcusable callousness towards the vulnerable. That attitude ensures a lose-lose outcome for everybody.

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