BY NOW, the dance is familiar. Every few years, the Cabinet instructs the Personnel Department to commence wage negotiations for almost 90,000 public-sector workers. The State makes an initial low offer, citing the burdens of backpay. Talks continue and various postures are adopted on both sides, unusually until settlement or compromise is reached. A few years later, the cycle repeats.
The current negotiations have so far followed this playbook.
But, as noted by the Prime Minister in his Labour Day address, the context in which these talks are occurring could not be more unusual.
“Over the past decades, the digital revolution has been transforming the retail, media, entertainment, advertising industries; in short, upending old business models and industries,” he said. “On the horizon is the larger prospect that every job, every business, every aspect of 21st-century life will be restructured.”
Dr Rowley has said he is “puzzled” by pushback against low wage increases. When a two per cent hike for government workers was proposed and rejected in May, he called for “reason” and “patience.”
The Prime Minister is correct to point to the unprecedented changes occurring around us.
But he must equally acknowledge that those changes are reasons why the State needs to do a better job of being responsive to the needs of its employees.
For sure, state workers are lucky from a certain vantage point. While many workers in the private sector have been retrenched, furloughed or seen their pay levels drastically cut, government workers have remained employed, were allowed to work from home during the pandemic, and did not have any drops in revenue passed on to them.
At the same time, governments continue to do workers a disservice by convening wage negotiations under archaic rules that allow for pay adjustments only years after the fact. Failure to address wages in a timely way distorts the annual fiscal reporting on a national level by deferring expenditure levels, to the tune of billions.
Such deferrals, expressed in backpay, are then used as a rationale to reduce the scope of pay increases, notwithstanding the impact of inflation and cost of living increases.
Covid19 placed incredible burdens on workers, many of whom were on the frontlines, including police officers and teachers. It is ironic the State has expressed a desire to honour such workers, while offering increases some feel do not match that sentiment.
The Prime Minister wants workers to seek guidance from the brave new world that is soon to befall us.
But if the world is rapidly changing, the civil service’s own mechanisms to reflect that change and to bolster productivity are already falling far behind.