I am the trade union’s representative on the Board of the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) and by virtue of being there I was elected to represent the NIS on the Board of the Berbice Bridge Company Incorporated (BBCI). This bridge, which was opened on the 23rd December 2008, connects West and East Berbice and has allowed for easier and quicker travel to the specified locales, Georgetown, the airports and around Guyana; be it for commerce, business, medical attention, pleasure, vacation, etc.
My principal role on the NIS and BBCI boards is to safeguard the interest of the workers in ensuring their contributions are duly paid, properly managed, and the investments on these contributions are done in a manner to ensure returns that can secure their monetary benefits. The solvency of NIS is of importance to me. As an insider I am acutely aware of the dire consequences to be borne for the workers’ contributions/investment if the BBCI and Government of Guyana fail to sit down and hammer out an agreement on a new toll/fare structure.
No agreement is written in stone or not subject to review and modification. We must start out acknowledging this fact and premise. This issue is not about under whose stewardship the bridge was constructed or who ordered the investment, for such serve only as acknowledgement but cannot change what happened. In such circumstance we can only look forward and learn from the experience(s). This issue has to be about a recognition that the bridge exists and the need for putting a system in place with the view of the investors having the appropriate returns on their investment.
The NIS is not the majority shareholder in the BBCI. However, NIS has a larger investment than any of the other shareholders. Apart from its ordinary shares it also has 950,000 preferential shares, which no other shareholder/investor has in the bridge. The return on the Scheme’s investment – i.e. the workers’ contributions – is dependent on the success of this project, through the collective will of all the investors and government in ensuring whatever is agreed upon benefits this nation
The life of the agreement between the BBCI and Government ends in 2026. And according to the Agreement the bridge will be handed over to the Government for US$1.00. Whatever were the factors used as the conceptualising of the investment, there exists a formula that determines how rates will be increased. Those involved from the inception of this project, including the PPP/C administration, are aware of what ought to happen with regards to movement/increase in the toll.
Failure by the previous government in March 2015 to entertain discussions with BBCI on increasing fares, because it may have been considered a political risk given the upcoming May 2015 General and Regional Elections, is abrogation of responsibility consistent with the agreement and the sacrificing of the economic viability of the bridge. For me, this means the workers’ contributions/investment.
When the group that forms the Coalition Government was in the Opposition, the commitment was given that should they be elected to office there would be a reduction in the toll. Having been elected to office, on recognising the challenges the bridge was encountering, the coalition sought to provide a subsidy with the view of reducing the toll.
Politicians on both sides of the divide are urged to take note that the BBCI is Guyana’s first major Public-Private Partnership investment. How they deal with the issue of ensuring return on investment, based on agreements, will send strong signals to investors, local and international, as to whether they are credible partners to do business with.
Pandering to the political gallery, playing the citizens against the BBCI and each other, acting as strangers to the truth, and the finger-pointing in order to secure votes will not make the issue go away. Neither does the policy of inaction/non-engagement solve the problem, particularly when an Agreement exits, law and decency require it be honoured. The toll tariff formula for increase forms part of the agreement with BBCI and Government.
The trade union community in an effort to bring some sobriety to the national discourse and reduce angst on the matter, on 16th October 2018 held engagement with the Berbice Bridge in the Boardroom of the Guyana Trades Union Congress. The Trade Union Movement asked whether it is possible to have an extension to the life of the Agreement, between BBCI and Government, which can facilitate a further reduction of the current rates, and moreso give the BBCI an opportunity to re-negotiate with the bankers and investors with a view of having the shareholders receiving the appropriate returns on their investment. The response received is that it is a very good idea and can be considered.
On 19th October 2018 the Movement dispatched a letter to Minister of Public Infrastructure David Patterson, seeking an engagement, which is still awaited. This engagement is sought on the premise that as subject minster for the bridge, the trade union and his ministry can work towards achieving a common position.
It is not lost on the trade union community that the current toll, while government has given the bridge a subsidy, is still seen by Guyanese as exorbitant. As such it is urged there be engagement between the BBCI and Government to work out modalities and arrive at a clear mechanism, which would ensure that for remaining operating period of the bridge by BCCI, its management will be conducted in a manner to make sure the nation, moreso the small man, workers and their families can use and benefit from it. This requires good faith on the part of both, and where the BBCI has repeatedly signalled its desire to go down this path it behooves government, including the Opposition, to act in like manner.
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