What's a fair wage, salary in the public service?

In this photo taken in January, workers from the National Marine and Maintenance Services Co Ltd (formerly CL Marine) hold signs protesting low wages during a demonstration at the company's Chaguaramas dock. - FILE PHOTO/SHANE SUPERVILLE
In this photo taken in January, workers from the National Marine and Maintenance Services Co Ltd (formerly CL Marine) hold signs protesting low wages during a demonstration at the company's Chaguaramas dock. - FILE PHOTO/SHANE SUPERVILLE

There have been several attempts over the years to ensure equitable systems of wage and salary administration by various ministers of public administration, hand in hand with ministers of finance in Trinidad and Tobago.

In particular, since public servants of all levels and competencies were publicly excused from work on full pay during the various “lockdowns” imposed by government, to the immense resentment, jealousy and even bitterness of those locked out without pay whose taxes paid the salaries of the fortunate civil servants whose condescension had so often in the past accompanied poor service to them: the public.

There are various levels of occupational category: entrepreneurial, single, owner-operated, itinerant, street vendors, creative and hospitality workers, care providers for the elderly, infants and the disabled, small and medium-sized employers (SMSs), sole-operated service providers, enterprises with up to 100 employees, the larger, multi-sectoral, regional operations and the public service and state enterprises. All were broad brushed into moneyless lockdown except for the latter.

Trying to re-establish the economy, now salary structures are being given intense scrutiny...what is a fair wage or salary? How do we calculate one? Does it have to fit in to a graduated structure? Relate to other positions of similar skill and responsibility? Or just give them what they ask?

Salaries and wages for public servants are generally published and laid before Parliament (or used to be). The private sectors, all of them listed above and more, are subject to similar exercises regularly and intermittently: either annually, every two or five years, depending on the economic health of the country, the market, the industrial sector and the profitability of the enterprise.

Union arguments such as wage rates being tied to the employers’ ability to pay are not universally accepted in tribunals and industrial courts in the Caribbean as has been soberly pointed out by Corthesy and Roper in Commonwealth Caribbean Employment and Labour Law, although it may be one of the factors taken into consideration.

One could not have helped, however, wondering on what basis the compensation levels were awarded to police contract employees listed in the audit report by the Ministry of Finance Central Audit Committee into the hiring of staff on contract by the TT Police Service over a four-year period from 2018 to 2021.

As published in the media, it moved from $54 million to $89 million. This had nothing to do with the John Report. These were all contract workers.

Since there was no explanation about which were on contract for services and which were on a contract of services, (two very different things), it is difficult to distinguish who was getting what and why.

The audit report did state that there was no input or oversight from the CPO, and people were being paid allowances and benefits for extra duty and overtime without working for them. No supervision, no oversight.

The police HR department must have been tearing their hair out. They had their job to do but were not able to do it. An employer’s primary responsibility, theoretically, anyway, is to maintain employees’ trust and confidence and to act in good faith.

Equity in salary rates and levels are key to the trust and confidence and the perception of fairness.

Mind you, anyone who has had to hire needed staff through the CPO’s office will find it hard to blame the TTPS for going AWOL and doing their own thing. You are being squeezed between a rock and a hard place when your line minister demands fast results and your promotability depends on getting results despite the delays and procrastination in that department, and you have been given a mandate to get something done now.

What do you do when you just do not have the human resources to fulfil their demands?

It is also why many a permanent secretary knows that having to go through traditionally lengthy and bureaucratic government procurement procedures has in the past encouraged many another perm sec, in the name of efficiency, to break up procurement contracts into chunks of just so much under a million to make them look not only within their remit but more or less plausible.

That is why repeated appeals for review and revamping of the procurement processes, ignored for so many years, have been frustrating both public and private sector attempts at productivity. And lead to people skirting the law because of one vote in parliament made, we are told, on the basis of political loyalty, not technical knowledge.

Every action has consequences that extend far beyond the action itself. Splitting proposals is contrary to the old regulations, but so is repairing a vehicle on a public street or leading a donkey cart on a thoroughfare or breach of a promise to marry, if it comes to that. But the law gets forgotten in the name of expediency.

Either that, or in the bureaucratic procurement process, action has to wait for two years for permission, then production of three competitive proposals, a cost benefit analysis on each one, a review to check back to see if, after all that time the proposal still makes sense or has gone up in price, then do it all over again as supply chains have altered due to global weather conditions and so we go on.

We know how important procedures are and how important it is to follow them. We also know that public regulatory processes have needed upgrading for decades, and have not been, which is why the digitalisation revolution is much touted, is underway but not yet implemented in legislation but, we suspect, has been, often, in practice.

One side insists, and rightly, on the importance of following rules. The other side only knows how urgent the project is. Often, in management, urgent wins out over important.


"What’s a fair wage, salary in the public service?"

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