By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Trade union leaders are challenging the government’s decision to offer Dorian-ravaged civil servants a two-month salary advance rather than the $800 lump sum payment agreed pre-storm.
Bernard Evans, the National Congress of Trade Unions of The Bahamas (NCTUB) president, told Tribune Business he found it difficult to see how the government could afford such an advance that was likely more than the lump sum it had been struggling to pay Bahamas Public Services Union (BPSU) members.
The Minnis administration’s efforts to help civil servants in Abaco and Grand Bahama were revealed in an internal government message sent by Athena Marche, the acting deputy financial secretary, who said such benefits were permitted under General Orders 1256 to 1260.
The message, seen by Tribune Business, said: “The minister of finance [K Peter Turnquest] has approved the grant of two months’ salary advance to be repaid over a period of two years for permanent and pensionable officers affected by Hurricane Dorian in the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama.”
However, in another internal government message circulated widely on social media, and verified as authentic by Tribune Business, a senior civil servant confirmed that the Government had decided to defer the $800 lump sum payment it had agreed to make to the BPSU’s estimated 20,000 members pre-storm.
Donna Delancey, the Public Treasury’s deputy treasurer, wrote: “I have been directed to advise that the Cabinet Office has agreed to defer the payment of the BPSU $800 lump sum to a later date.” Kimsley Ferguson, the BPSU’s president, could not be reached for comment before press time.
In normal circumstances, the Government’s decision to defer the promised payment would likely reignite industrial tensions and actions. However, Hurricane Dorian and the sheer scale of its impact on Abaco and Grand Bahama means that the Government has no choice but to divert every available cent to relief, recovery and restoration efforts.
Any efforts by the likes of the BPSU and Bahamas Doctors Union (BDU), which had its own issues with the Government and Public Hospitals Authority (PHA), to press their case would leave them open to potential charges of being selfish and unpatriotic at a time when the country is in crisis and their fellow Bahamians in great needs.
As a result, such industrial differences will likely have to be put on ice for the time being, but Mr Evans questioned why the Government had resorted to salary advances - which will ultimately have to be repaid - as opposed to making the $800 payments as part of its civil service hurricane relief efforts.
The NCTU president, urging the Government to “re-engage” its BPSU affiliate given the changed financial circumstances in Dorian’s aftermath, said the latter and its members had been promised an $800 one-time payment at end-August and another $600 this December as part of a compromise to their payment demands.
“Because of the magnitude of the losses I understand the Government may be offering two months’ advance to be repaid over a two-year period,” Mr Evans said, suggesting that the average monthly civil service was $1,500. “The Government also promised these people $800 at the end of last month.
“If they say they’re going to offer two months’ salary to be repaid over two years’, the salary advance is more than the $800 promised.... If they have difficulty now finding the $800 they owe them, I don’t see how they will find the two months’ salary advance. Why can’t they just pay them the $800 owed, or as part of this advance?”
Mr Evans called on the Government to re-engage with the BPSU to prevent the situation from becoming inflamed again. “I think in the Saturday meeting the Government had with the unions, where they laid out the financial status of the country at the time, some promises were made to the public service.
“I think the Government should re-engage the BPSU and say there’s a problem in meeting some of those pledges, say this is how we have to go forward. Just sit down, re-engage and dialogue. The Bahamian people understand the magnitude of what is going on.”
Marlon Johnson, the Ministry of Finance’s acting financial secretary, who confirmed the two months’ salary advance to storm-hit civil servants, told Tribune Business that this initiative should not be linked to the BPSU’s negotiations and the previously-promised lump sum.
“This came about as a result of recognising that public servants in those areas may have immediate needs to address,” he explained. “Many of them have damages to homes, and some have obviously been displaced. It’s just another mechanism the Government has available to avail itself of with the public service.”
Mr Johnson said the Government had not calculated estimates for how much it will have to advance in total, as it was unsure how many persons will take it up. He added that the net impact to the Public Treasury will be zero because the funds will ultimately have to be repaid by 2021.
“We don’t know what the uptake is going to be,” the acting financial secretary said. “It’s an advance which the Government will get back over time, so the net cost is zero.”