Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Let's cooperate! - Holness pleads with angry unions not to make pension reform divisive

Published:Wednesday | February 22, 2017 | 2:00 AM
Holness

 Prime Minister Andrew Holness has pleaded with labour unions representing the more than 100,000 public sector workers to stay at the negotiating table, following their threats to 'fight' his administration over pension reform.

At the same time, union leaders are maintaining that they were forced to take the aggressive stance.

“When we talk about pensions it must be a cooperative posture. It's not something that we should divide on, and so the posture of the Government will be to work towards resolution and not antagonism,” said Holness yesterday as he gave the keynote address at Sagicor's annual Pension Investment Seminar in St Andrew.

The controversial reforms -which are built in the current International Monetary Fund deal approved last November - will, among other things, require government workers (many of whom were not contributing before) to contribute five per cent of their salaries to their pension. The retirement age will also be increased to 65, from 60.

A law to give effect to those has to be passed by April 1, when the 2017/2018 financial year starts.

NOT AGAINST CONTRIBUTIONS

The trade unions say they are not against contributing, but claim that the proposals will be 'disadvantageous' if they do not get certain increases to cushion the effect of deduction from their salaries.

President of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions (JCTU), Helene Davis-Whyte, said her group, which represents 11 unions and over 50,000 workers, is prepared to go the distance against any action by the Government that she said will put civil servants at a disadvantage.

Jamaica Teachers' Association President, Howard Isaacs, has called on the 25,000 membership to “be prepared to fight”, while the Jamaica Police Federation has been holding meetings with cops to determine their action.

Stating that he has been listening to the issues, Holness said he has also received a letter from the unions and will move to address their concerns.

“When we’re talking about the quality life in the future for our people who have worked very hard and are ready to retire, it shouldn’t be on the basis of antagonism and contention. There must be a cooperative posture to reach solutions for sustainability, robustness, equity, adequacy and to ensure that there is alignment between the strategic needs of investments now and income generation in the future,” he said.

Responding to Holness, the JCTU head said the unions support negotiations, but were forced to threaten action.

"We're only at this point because the Government moved to put the reform in the IMF programme and to give a specific date when it should be passed in law even though we had not completed the consultations," Davis-Whyte told The Gleaner.

Opposition Spokesman on Finance, Dr Peter Phillips, said it is "reasonable" for the Government to consult with unions, although he noted that all the reforms will not come into place when legislation is approved.

"What the unions want to be assured of is that their workers are not worse off in going forward with the pension reform," said Phillips.

The Government’s is spending more than J$20 billion on pension for its workers this fiscal year.