The teachers’ issue is being mishandled by the government. At this stage and under the present conditions, the Guyana Teachers’ Union cannot be reasonably expected to call off its strike to return to conciliation.
Under Guyana’s labour laws, conciliation is not an intermediate step between negotiations and arbitration. Conciliation, under the Labour Act, can include a range of options which can be exercised individually or together. There can be an inquiry by the Chief Labour Officer into the causes and circumstances which have given rise to the differences between an employer and employees; efforts can be made to promote a settlement of these differences; or, with the consent of both parties, the matter can be referred to arbitration.
Instead of arguing, however, about whether there should be further talks with the Ministry of Labour, efforts should be made to find an honest, independent and trusted mediator who is acceptable to both sides and who can intercede between the parties.
This is a far more sensible approach than to have the Ministry of Social Protection, which has responsibility for labour and industrial relations, undertake the role of mediating the dispute. The Ministry of Labour is an interested party. It is part of the government and it is part of Cabinet – the Executive arm of the government, which has decided to not honour the recommendations of the Task Force appointed by the President to make recommendations on teachers’ wages and benefits.
The government should therefore seek, even at this unholy hour, the services of an agreeable mediator as a means of seeing how the differences between itself and the teachers union can be narrowed and the planned teachers’ strike averted. Three persons, either of whom should be acceptable to both parties, can be considered: Mr. George Cave, Mr. Samuel Goolsarran or Mr. Earl John.
The Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) should not fall victim to the idea that the government is trying to find the money to pay the teachers. If the government wanted to find the money, they would have found it already. The government is seeking to buy time to avert a strike. Once that happens, the government will find a few extra hundred million, but a sum that would be far short of the justifiable 40%, which is being asked for by the teachers’ union.
Forty percent is not unreasonable. What is unreasonable is this idea that once the teachers get the increase, public servants will demand the same. The government has to decide on its priorities. Is education a priority? And if it is more a priority than the ‘pen-pushers’ in government Ministries, then the money has to be found to pay the teachers.
The money can be found. The Leader of the Opposition, no champion of the working class, has already identified where five billion dollars can be found.
But there is a larger process which needs to be engaged. The first is the need for differentiated pay scales across the public service. Teachers’ wages should not be tied to the government’s ability to offer similar increases to public servants. And even within the public service there is no need for uniform pay scales. The ministries should be given greater latitude in setting their own pay scales because certain skills simply cannot be attracted given the salary scales within the public service. It is for this reason that there are no many high-paid contract workers.
And the situation is being exploited. There are persons working under the present government for salaries in excess of a million dollars monthly, sums, which not even Ministers are paid. And sometimes you have to question whether the government is gaining value for these super-salaries that are being paid. You also have a large number of persons who are not doing much but enjoying ‘fat’ salaries. They should be pulled from the government’s payroll.
But the main flaw in the process has to do with how wages and salaries are set. It is time to move away from the torturous process of annual wage increases. Workers need a living wage. They may not be able to obtain that at one go, but no attempt is being paid to set a living wage and then to determine how long it would take for government to move workers to that level.
Once a living wage is determined and it is decided how long it will take to move wages to that level, government can cease worrying about annual wage negotiations. With low to negligible inflation, wage increases can be paid every three years, providing, of course, that living wage targets are established.
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