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EDITORIAL - Get all the partners talking now

Published:Tuesday | January 5, 2010 | 12:00 AM

The Government and trade unions that represent public-sector workers are soon to begin talks on another of the agreements under which wage restraints have been bartered for job security.

In the best of times, the trade union bosses are not happy campers at these talks. This time, though, they are set to enter the discussions more determined than ever - angered by Prime Minister Bruce Golding's recent declaration that wages will have to be frozen over the next two fiscal years.

Vincent Morrison, the president of the National Workers' Union, declared the existing memorandum of understanding - the third of the pacts - to have been killed by what he deemed to have been a unilateral declaration on the wage freeze by the PM.

"When the Government can announce a wage freeze without consultation with the partners, it doesn't make sense," Mr Morrison complained. Whatever may be the dissatisfaction of Mr Morrision and his pals, they, as does the administration, have little room within which to manoeuvre.

Discrete affair

The public-sector wage bill of approximately $127 billion, or nearly 12 per cent of GDP, is unsustainable, as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - from which the Government is seeking to borrow US$1.2 billion - has told Mr Golding. The fund suggests that the wage bill should fall to around nine per cent of GDP. For that to happen, some jobs will have to go as part of the reform of the public sector ordered by the PM. A wage freeze, though, might limit the depth of the cut.

Notwithstanding the administration's seemingly stronger position, it ought not, we believe, to approach the negotiations with the public-sector unions as a discrete affair. It must be part of a wider compact between the social partners, about which Mr Golding has talked eloquently, but up to now has failed to energise.

Jamaica faces a difficult period of adjustment, the success of which will be best guaranteed by broad consensus, if not full agreement. Indeed, the recent bungling of fiscal and taxation policies showed what is possible when matters are not fully ventilated and consensus is absent. It would be a shame if the same were to happen over the additional conditionalities for the IMF loan.

The plan

Long before the administration came to terms with the depth of the economic crisis, Mr Golding, to his credit, promised to bring to the table not only the trade unions, labour and the private sector, but also the political Opposition so as to agree on the broad parameters of economic policy. In Jamaica's low-trust environment, the plan made sense then. It is critical now.

When Mr Golding appointed Christopher Zacca, the former president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), as a senior adviser and close aide, it was felt that managing the engagement with the social partners would be part of Mr Zacca's job.

Maybe Mr Zacca is busy elsewhere, with other chores. Action on the social-partnership talks, with the full authority of the prime minister, is, however, urgent.

If the Government continues to dawdle on the matter, it may be up to the PSOJ to convene the discussions, declare that it is doing so, and invite the Government.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.