Spectre of devaluation

By Rickey Singh

IN CONTRAST to the prevailing mood of confidence over the economic future of Trinidad and Tobago, there is spreading depression across in Barbados where thousands of public sector workers are facing retrenchment early next year as the government anxiously seeks to avoid a devaluation of the Barbados dollar.

Here in Trinidad and Tobago, while Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar was last week playing a “Santa Claus” role with her offer of a 20 per cent rebate over the past two days on a range of widely consumed basic commodities, the Guyana the government of President Donald Ramotar found much comfort in another consecutive year of  economic growth. 

The latest projection from the IMF has placed it at 4.8 per cent for 2013. 

The people of Jamaica who know much about having to cope with the dread consequences of prescriptions from the IMF for fiscal and economic management can well empathise with Barbadians at this Christmas season as they prepare for coming fallouts from thousands of public sector workers listed for retrenchment in the first quarter of 2014.

Having concluded an arrangement with the IMF that included, for a start, the bitter medicine of some 3,000 job cuts in the public sector, or face the threat of devaluation of the Barbados dollar,  the Democratic Labour Party administration of Prime Minister Freundel Stuart has Barbadians in a mood of spreading gloom.

Accustomed to applause from international financial institutions and credit rating agencies as having the most stable currency in this region-50 cents to the US dollar-the prospect of having to cope with a devalued dollar is viewed by Barbadians as sacrilegious talk.

Yet, depending on the outcome of coming meetings with representatives of the private sector and the labour movement, and more precisely the National Union of Public  Workers (NUPW), we should learn after the holiday season  if  Prime Minister Stuart’s administration can succeed in averting the  looming crisis.        

At the time of writing last week the credibility of the NUPW-largest representative of organised public sector workers-itself seems to be at stake. Towards the weekend, it was seeking to test the mood in favour of a possible three percent salary cut for workers with the hope of avoiding the coming mass retrenchment. 

“Temporary” workers-many of them teachers working for years without confirmation-are most vulnerable to the planned job cuts. 

A crucial meeting is scheduled for tomorrow between the government and NUPW’s representatives on counter proposals to the announced 3,000 job cuts. 

Both government  ministers and strategists of the governing DLP as well as representatives of various trade unions and private sector enterprises were scheduled to be engaged in separate meetings over this weekend to assess alternatives  to the looming crisis.

Earlier in the week surprises were the order of the day as Barbadians were digesting the negative consequences of the government’s IMF-influenced  economic management programme for 2014. 

The biggest surprise, of course,  was that of December 13—deemed “Black Friday” by the Barbados Daily Nation—when Finance Minister Chris Sinckler made his shock announcement that some 3,000 public sector workers to be affected for the first quarter in 2014 in view of very serious fiscal challenges facing the government and the need to avoid devaluation of the Barbados dollar.

What made that gloomy announcement even more  depressing was the disclosure by representatives of the private sector and labour movement-including, most significantly, the NUPW-that they had  not benefitted from any prior consultation of the planned job cuts.

Structured consultations involving the  government, labour movement and private sector had become the norm over the years following Barbados’ creation of its laudable “social partners” mechanism to ensure a stable environment in the interest of the country’s orderly economic development.

Why, therefore, did the Minister of Finance choose to ignore the necessity to at least inform the NUPW in particular about the coming 3,000 job public sector job cuts, having completed an economic management agreement, as influenced by officials of the IMF who had by then departed the country? 

A series of related surprises were to follow: For example, last Monday-three days after his Finance Minister’s announcement of the coming 3,000 job cuts-Prime Minister Stuart met with a delegation from the NUPW. 

Stuart had a tough message to deliver. He was not interested in talks for  any “band aid” economic fix but to get  at “the root of the problem” so that in the medium to long term “everybody is happy.”

Making “everybody happy”? 

He would have had for guidance what happened in 1994 to a DLP administration under then Prime Minister Erskine Sandiford whose austerity measures were rejected by the unions. 

It subsequently fell to a no-confidence motion in parliament, introduced  by the Barbados Labour Party’s Owen Arthur, who later became a three-term Prime Minister.

Stuart  is now a second term head of government. This seems reasonably long enough for control of state power to have identified the “root” of the problems afflicting the nation rather than being trapped in 2013 into an IMF-prescribed programme with massive retrenchment in the public sector and related negative national consequences.

The planned 3,000 retrenchment of public sector workers is a most daunting challenge for the NUPW’s credibility, more so now that it has gone public with a verbal blast at ex-Prime Minister Arthur for challenging the union to take a firm stand—as it had done back in 1994-against then prime minister Sandiford DLP administration’s plans for salary and/or job cuts.  

Although it has a mere two-seat majority in the 30-member House of Assembly, there seems no possibility of the DLP administration of Stuart suffering a similar no-confidence fate when a few parliamentarians of the then ruling party teamed up with the BLP opposition.

 The big question at this time of widespread uncertainties is whether the involved unions can demonstrate a united front for negotiated alternatives to the threatened 3,000 job cuts and related challenges based on the IMF-prescribed policies to stave off devaluation of the Barbados dollar?

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