“The collective bargaining agreement journey began in September of 2008. Little did we know at its inception that it would be such an extensive and trying journey,” said Marvin Blades, President of the Public Service Union. The Government of Belize signed a Partial Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Public Service Union (PSU), Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU) and the Association of Public Service Senior Managers (APSSM) on Tuesday, October 9th, four years after the process started. Both sides were relieved after the agreement was signed.
Hon. Patrick Faber, Minister of Education, Youth and Sports, signed on behalf of the Government. He chairs the Cabinet sub-committee appointed to negotiate with the Unions. Faber said, “We join our union counterparts to celebrate this partial agreement, which represents a realistic picture of what it is we are able to do as a Government given the economic situation we are facing now.” “What it is we are able to do” excludes a 30% salary adjustment which was one of the union’s main proposals. Faber said the Government could not agree to the salary adjustment at this time because it would be unmanageable. Representatives from both sides agreed to an extent. One senior government officially simply said, “It is unrealistic and unreasonable.” To the question if it is unreasonable at this time, a union representative said, “It is not etched in stone.” The 30% salary adjustment is one of 23 proposals, however, it was not featured in the partial agreement. That and a few others remain on the negotiating table and will be the focus of a final agreement.
Faber was asked how the result of the debt restructuring exercise would impact negotiations. He said that Government continues to look forward to any relief that may come but “we are yet to see what kind of relief that would be so we have to wait and see”. He said that the agreements signed on Tuesday included requests that can be managed regardless of the results of the restructuring exercise. Those include increases in allowances for cashiers, revenue allowance per month, housing and rent allowance, general allowance, hazardous allowance, travelling allowance, motor vehicle allowance, responsibility allowance, commuting allowances, hardship allowances, public sector modernization, a review of regulations, an audit of public sector and the establishment of a teacher training subsidy.
Blades said, “We have come far however, this [agreement] merely represents a progress report to our membership and to the general public.” Just before the signing of the partial agreement, union representatives and Government officials were engaged in negotiations for the outstanding proposals. Blades said, “We encourage our members to stand as a vanguard to ensure that we come to some result.” One individual from the meeting said it was more a debate than a negotiation. The person continued, “How are we to reach an agreement on important issues such as salary adjustments if we take forever arguing on simple things such as the preamble?” Those who have been in such negotiations before seem to accept that being argumentative and sometimes hostile is the way to get desired results in collective bargaining negotiations. Perhaps, that is why it took four years to reach a partial agreement.
Faber hopes it doesn’t take as long to reach a final agreement. He said, “We look forward to further negotiations with the union. We believe in the workers of this country and especially of the Government. They work hard every day in order for this Government to operate.”