Gov’t ready for arbitration

Minister of Education Nicolette Henry

…as teachers hold out for meeting with President
…Min Henry says process cannot move back to negotiation stage

MINISTER of Education Nicolette Henry has hinted that today’s conciliation talks with her ministry, the Guyana Teacher’s Union and the Ministry of Social Protection could very well be the last one if progress is not made and she hinted that government might be willing to move on to arbitration.

Union leaders on Wednesday called for a meeting with President David Granger, stating that they do not want to talk with both the ministries of Education and Social Protection.

However, Henry reminded the GTU that the process detailed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement must be followed for progressive decisions to be made. “It’s really strange that the union in this point in time would want to go back to negotiations,” Henry said and added, “We would have already completed the process of negotiations.”

Minister Henry explained that the 1983 bargaining agreement between the ministry and the union details a process that must be followed as prescribed. The first phase of this process is the negotiation phase, which has already been completed with neither party arriving at a compromise and as such, the matter was referred to the second phase — conciliation. “When I, as Minister of Education, would have referred the matter to conciliation, it meant that [the] negotiation phase would have failed and therefore we would have moved on to the second phase of the collective bargaining process,” Henry clarified. This conciliation phase is where a third party [the Department of Labour here] intervenes as an external body to the two parties is the second phase. Here, Minister Henry said that she no longer has the power to preside over the discussions and it is left to members from the department functioning as mediators.

Currently at the conciliation phase, she explained that the only decision that can be taken now is to move to arbitration upon completion of this. In the arbitration phase, an independent body would preside over the matter, assimilating information from every angle, before making an arbitrary decision.

And this may very well be sooner than later, as Minister Henry noted that the conciliation slated for today at 13:00hrs may be the final one before arbitration.
Henry stressed, “We cannot at this point in time move back to negotiations…We have to move forward or we have to conclude it [today].”

Henry also posited: “What the union [appears]- at this point in time- to be attempting to do is to derail the process and as a government we have to be very careful in ensuring that we provide the right guidance and ensuring that the mechanism that is currently in place is the one that is adhered to.”

Furthermore, failure to follow this process rigidly will open a can of worms according to the minister, because it provides an avenue for either party to contest the decision(s) made. “Let’s observe due process and let’s move this forward,” the minister stressed. “This is a situation that is affecting the entire country, it is one that is of grave concern to all Guyanese, I believe, and we need to move with expediency, clarity and some sense of urgency on this matter.” Teachers across the country have taken to the streets to protest for a hike in their salaries and some schools have been closed due to this. Though the strike has been affecting scores of children, the ministry has initiated its contingency plan to mitigate the situation by deploying trainee and retiree teachers. Veteran Trade Unionist Lincoln Lewis, said the only way to resolve the issue is to continue the collective bargaining process. “The best thing to do is go to arbitration and have it resolved…When an arbitration happens, the agreement will be final and binding; based on what the panel decides that is what you will get,” he said.

Minister of State Joseph Harmon has said that teachers will only be satisfied if the Guyana Teachers Union agrees to engage the government. “No one benefits from arguing in the street…we will continue to engage the union to find a common ground and have the teachers in the classrooms,” said the minister in an invited comment on Tuesday.

He believes that the teachers belong in the classroom, so government will work to ensure that they (the teachers) return. The industrial action comes after the parties failed to arrive at a consensus, primarily on the government’s proposed $700M to facilitate salary increases and $200 million to address de-bunching for 2018.

The GTU believes that the proposed figure from the government would not be sustainable or acceptable, since it would amount to an increase by GY$5,000 per teacher for one year. The union instead proposed an across-the-board increase in salary of 40 per cent for 2016 and incremental increases of five per cent in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively, to be granted to all categories of teachers and teacher educators. Although the GTU and the government engaged in follow-up deliberations on the matter, the union had refused to budge from its proposal. Lyte, however, contended that 40 per cent is not the union’s final decision and they, instead, would be willing to negotiate downwards.

President Granger has said his government is actively searching for alternative sources of finance to meet the teachers’ demand. He had also warned against industrial action, stating that there is no need for such an extreme measure.

In responding to a series of questions on the issue, President Granger gave his word that the Social Protection Ministry is working with the Ministry of Finance to determine whether additional funds can be secured. “The Ministry of Social Protection, which has responsibility for labour and industrial relations, is in touch with the Ministry of Finance to see whether additional funds could be found from other heads of government expenditure, in order to move closer to the goal of providing sufficient funds to the teachers,” the President told reporters at a news conference on Friday at the Ministry of the Presidency.

Hinting that finances may very well have to come from funds allocated to other ministries for various developmental projects and initiatives, President Granger said such was the case when monies had to be secured to pay sugar workers their severance earlier this year. In January, the government had cut ministerial budgets in an effort to pay thousands of sugar workers their severance pay. During the initial stages of negotiations with the GTU, the government, through the Education Ministry, proposed $700M to facilitate salary increases, and $200M to address de-bunching for 2018. But the GTU rejected the offer, and instead counter-proposed an across-the-board increase in salary of 40 per cent for 2016 and incremental increases of five per cent in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively, to be granted to all categories of teachers and teacher educators.

Reiterating that his government has been continuously trying to meet the needs of teachers, President Granger said it was following deliberations at the level of Cabinet on the report submitted by a high-level task force that the initial sum of $700M was proposed as an increase in salary for teachers.