Reforming Barbados’ Public Sector By Hal Austin

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah, arrogance or economic illiteracy for a leading trade unionist to demand a 10 per cent pay rise for his state-employed members when the country is teetering on the brink of financial disaster. That such a buffoon should be in such a powerful position in a nation that is […]

By Peter N. Boos

April 21, 2010

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah, arrogance or economic illiteracy for a leading trade unionist to demand a 10 per cent pay rise for his state-employed members when the country is teetering on the brink of financial disaster.

That such a buffoon should be in such a powerful position in a nation that is badly in need of all hands on deck, and when the rest of the world is experiencing sharp wage deflation, either says something about his members or about the nation as a whole. If it is a negotiating strategy it is in bad taste.
Sadly, there is nothing new about this as I have long been saying that at some point in time, government will have to confront the blinkered, one-track minded economic fools heading our public sector unions. That time has arrived.

Having given the public sector an undeserved pay rise within days of coming to office, prime minister David Thompson has now got to draw a line in the sand.

If he does so, by now turning down this insane demand, and also making it clear that there will be no pay rise on the table for the next two years, he will recapture some of the ground he has lost to the jokers who call themselves union leaders.

If he does not, then the rest of his premiership will be a lame duck one with pay demands coming from every corner of the public sector.

But, with a bulging public payroll and with about half the working adults depending on the taxpayers, the chickens are coming home to roost. Already commercial banks are on strike and not lending to small businesses, exporters want reduced tariffs and the under-performing university is playing Oliver Twist with the public purse.

Barbados’ post-independence “prosperity” has been built on two myths: that the nation is fast becoming a developed nation, when in fact it is a middle-ranking nation; and second, that we could spend like teenagers maxing out a credit card without consideration that at some point the statement is going to come through the letter box.

Every new dumb idea, every half-baked project, our civil servants draft comprehensive loan applications and then drift from regional and international lending body to lending body hoping to get them to offer a loan.

It does not matter that the loans come with strings and massive interest rates which will have to be repaid some at some point, at least momentarily it makes politicians and civil servants walk with puffed out chests.

In the process, real structural changes are postponed for another day, for someone else to deal with, in the long-honoured short-termism of elective politics.
Take the over-staffed, under-worked Government Printery with its outdated machinery going back to the 1960s, is there a logical reason why this cannot be privatised?

Governments need reports and stationery printed, not to own the whole kabush. This is an indulgence too far.  Look at the over-staffing: five clerical officers, get rid of three, saving over $67,000 a year; one maid, saving $23,000; one senior photographer, saving $44,000; four proof readers, get rid of two, saving $82,000; two assistant photographers, saving $63,000; 11 compositors, get rid of five, saving $165,000, 14 binders’ assistants, get rid of seven, saving $185000.

Government should ring-fence the pensions scheme, give the printery a three-year contract “the incubation time for start-up companies” find the business a proper home, and then get rid of it, either under a management buy-out, or offer shares to the public.

After three years it will have to compete for government contracts along with other print works. There are numerous departmental reductions that can be made in this way, either through natural wastage, early retirements or re-training.

Hal Austin – hal.austin@ft.com

Peter N. Boos

Chairman Emeritus Ernst & Young Caribbean (since 2004); Founding partner Business Barbados publication (1999) and the Barbados business web portal BusinessBarbados.com (2009); Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO Substance Abuse Foundation Inc. (1996 to date); Founding Sponsor (2009) and First Chairman (2009-2014) Barbados Entrepreneurship Foundation Inc.; Founder of the Peter Boos Foundation (2004), (supporting youth development, entrepreneurship, education, addiction treatment, environmental protection, arts & culture development, relief of poverty and support of various community and charitable causes); Founder, Patron and first chairman ASPIRE Foundation (Barbados) Inc. - 'helping charities help' to strengthen and expand the Barbados Third Sector (2014 to date).

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