Sat | Dec 16, 2017

Mark Ricketts | Pay nurses, teachers, police better

Published:Sunday | December 3, 2017 | 12:00 AM

It's been decades of the same merry-go-round of governments promising - but hardly delivering - to our teachers, nurses, police, and others in the public sector. As time rolls by, the ability of these groups to fight back for better wages and working conditions has become weaker as laws are passed to straitjacket them.

With governments under the thumbnails of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), they cite inflexible IMF agreements with punitive conditions for preventing them from responding to the demands of their workers. On these grounds, they usually find some support from the public, which invokes the greater national good of an IMF agreement as against the worker's right of securing value for performance.

For state workers, it's always a catch-22, and the rewards never match promises made for their sacrifice. In this present go, coming after three years of no salary increases, the Government's offer is ridiculously low, and the workers are once again discovering that a promise is a comfort to a fool.

Jamaica is a land of make-believe. Our dysfunctional education system, with a

$20-billion increase in budgetary allocation over the last three years, has facilitated the graduation of more than 4,000 doctors from our university in the last 10 years, most of whom we can't employ here. Is it any wonder we can't find money to pay our public servants?

Jamaica, with a population of 2.7 million, has the same number of ministries (departments) as more populated countries such as the US and the UK, and when you add a bunch of gravy-train, money-losing state enterprises, is it any wonder why our Government can't find money to pay their professionals?

Then there is the long-delayed rationalisation of the public sector and the need to eliminate a plethora of allowance categories distorting remuneration packages. The IMF has been beseeching our governments for years to make the necessary changes, but administrations have yet to address the matter. As waste persists and meaningful cost savings are not instituted we turn to the most vulnerable, our nurses, teachers, and police - who deliver the most - and tell them they have to sacrifice some more as we have no money in the kitty to spare, given IMF strictures.

 

FOREIGN DEMAND

 

Our nurses are in big demand overseas. Our governments, instead of appreciating this valuable human asset and paying them accordingly, go overseas to find replacement nurses. Lately, the minister of health has been imploring foreign governments to not let their scouts from their countries recruit our naturally gifted nurses, who are among the best trained in the world.

For decades, governments have been wasting money on really bad public policies, often allowing tribal politics to override efficiency, management, and finance. The result: huge losses to the treasury and the nation, with workers forced to sacrifice.

For most of our years since Independence, the workers have been taking it on the chin. To ensure minimal resistance to this system of governance, the teachers, nurses, and police are ensnared by the Essential Services Act. But the Government has gone one step further by telling the police they must give six months' notice before they can resign, and they can't leave until whatever they are working on has been completed.

When the Andrew Holness-led JLP Government took office, his declared emphasis was on economic growth, and, very soon after taking office, he established the Economic Growth Council. I thought, 'Great!' Especially in light of the succession of IMF quarterly tests the country had passed under the Simpson Miller administration and the macroeconomic stability that had been achieved. With tourism recording annual increases in revenues and arrivals, but underperforming because of crime, I was elated because a major plank of the prime minister's campaign was controlling crime.

Yet another reason for my optimism was that the Chinese had been negotiating with the previous government for ownership of apart. If, as expected, commodity prices rebound and the JLP Government finalised an agreement, the mining sector would be poised for strong revenue growth.

With all that in place, I was convinced that the first order of business for the newly elected JLP administration would be retraining of the public sector, with an emphasis on competence and accountability. The decades of Government's $1-trillion asset-base earning negative to paltry returns would be a thing of the past, and major cost savings would occur with the closing of three ministries and a large number of state enterprises.

The Government could then monetise its oversize asset base, which is driven more by the politics of patronage than competence. This could be done through public-private-sector partnerships with fixed-income listings and equity markets facilitating a wide ownership base.

With substantial funds in place arising from efficiency and productivity gains, downsizing of the number of ministries, sale of assets, and sharp cutbacks in state enterprises, the Government could now focus on the pressing areas needed to facilitate growth. These would include violent crime, lawlessness, public disorder, and praedial larceny, which require a modern police force, properly equipped, properly staffed, and well-paid.

 

CONFLICT RESOLUTION

 

With the level of social dysfunction in the society, large numbers of social workers, psychiatrists, counsellors, and mediators trained in conflict resolution would have to be employed. Some of these would be new employees, while others would be sourced from staff retrained following the closing of ministries and state enterprises and the overall rationalisation of the public sector. The entire national security sector, including the criminal justice system, the JDF, the prisons, must be top priority.

An equally pressing need is the sad state of our infrastructure and the misdirection of our education system. Then there is agriculture and its huge potential for value added, exports, and links to the tourism sector.

Agriculture, however, has remained the poor cousin in terms of our education, technology, financing, insurance, capital output ratios, markets, grading, distribution, and marketing. The sector employs the majority of people, and they endure the greatest hardship. Agriculture needs to double its $8.5 billion annual budget.

A missed opportunity for us was a large budget allocation, including tax credit provisions, for research and innovation.

These growth-inducing initiatives, combined with restarting Alpart (now JISCO); the continued buoyancy of the tourism sector; the phenomenal successes achieved by this Government in the BPO sector; and the continued monitoring, assessment, and loan support from IMF, World Bank, and IDB should have made Jamaica a winner today.

Add to that a well-paid public sector having a transformative impact on income growth in the economy, including a pull effect on the private sector. The robust growth performance could then allow for funding of social programmes. But, as usual, we put the cart before the horse.

At last week's JLP Annual Conference, the Government talked a good game of prosperity and promises while offering despicable wage increases to its employees.

Mr Prime Minister, prosperity and fulfilled promises are about vision, courage, strength of leadership, the diminution of the politics of patronage, and, most important, the proper ordering of priorities.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer living in California. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.