Government Ministers and MPs should take a five per cent pay cut for a year to share the people’s burden and put the money in a fund to feed the disadvantaged – and Opposition MPs will do the same.
That’s the challenge which Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar laid down for the Dr Keith Rowley administration yesterday in Parliament.
In a three-hour reply on the People’s National Movement Government’s first Budget of its second term, Persad-Bissessar trashed the Budget as an “anti-people” package of rehashed PNM promises which could affect the majority of citizens and cause a shutdown of the TT Police Service, whose allocations were cut.
“Some people say the Budget wasn’t so bad but the devil is in the details – Government gave a false sense of feel-good to the people. This Budget appears designed to punish the vast majority of citizens,” Persad-Bissessar said.
“The Minister of Finance named it – ‘Resetting the Economy’ but it should be called what it is: ‘Business as usual’. It’s shocking how much is simply a rehash of old policies and ideas… Nothing new or innovative…
“It’s cloaked deceptively. They came with misinformation, conflicting figures and a convoluted narrative intended to hide the true reality of our situation.”
Persad-Bissessar cited joblessness and continued hardship for citizens in what Finance Minister Colm Imbert’s Budget address has confirmed will be another challenging year ahead.
Relating how she’d seen a woman with a placard appealing for help to feed her child, Persad-Bissessar said her People’s Partnership government had led by example.
“I placed 10 per cent of my monthly pay as Prime Minister in the Children’s Life Fund. My ministers contributed five per cent of their salary to this fund for five years,” she said.
“This is about leadership. It was in solidarity with the poor and a response to suffering. Another great moment of moral leadership has arrived: I call on this Rowley administration to consider a five per cent pay cut in solidarity with suffering citizens.”
She urged Government to follow New Zealand, India and Singapore leaders who’ve taken pay cuts in solidarity with the poor.
“While such a move will not shift the Government’s overall fiscal position, it’s about leadership. Let’s call it a policy of coronavirus solidarity! Show that you’re riding out these difficult times with the people.”
She said Government officials could even consider it a short-term initiative for 12 months as citizens face harsh circumstances.
“These funds can go towards a special cooked food supply programme for citizens deemed to be in extreme need, as the lady with the placard I described. We (in UNC) did it already to the save lives of children in the period 2010-15.
“We stand prepared to participate in a collective effort, if the Government can find the heart and the will. But with or without them, I’ve instructed my MPs take steps to increase our assistance to the poor and suffering at this very difficult time.”
Persad-Bissessar also reinforced her appeal for Government to hold on the Property Tax.
“We’re currently facing a pandemic where thousands have lost jobs, incomes and livelihoods. Where will people get money for this?”
She called for Government to say if the tax will be retroactive from October 2017.
“This law, as it stands, gives the Finance Minister the power to tax you retroactively… They have the power to collect taxes for the last three years.”
She hit Government’s method of doing property assessment, “… standing outside of buildings and taking pictures: maco curbside assessment.”
Persad-Bissessar asked Prime Minister Rowley to say what changed between his 2009 resistance to the tax and having his Government do it now. She also noted several tax exemptions for large multi-storey dwellings.
Persad-Bissessar accused Finance Minister Colm Imbert of constructing a Picton Street building and amending the Income Tax Act “to exempt himself from paying taxes.” She called on Imbert to say if he recused himself from Cabinet talks on the tax exemption laws.
“We’re not against tax breaks benefitting all citizens, even the minister, he’s a citizen. But his self-serving actions concerning tax breaks on his properties again shows how this PNM government governs. They’ll never do something for the good of the people unless they’re first assured they themselves benefit,” she said.
Persad-Bissessar quoted figures showing 64,000 unemployed up to 2018 (pre-COVID) and warned of more joblessness from Imbert’s Budget.
She appealed to Government to adjust planned vehicle importation quotas to save the numbers who would lose jobs and low-income earners who won’t be able to afford the cheapest car.
“The minister, while sitting upright at the wheel of his Mustang and luxury Benz, wouldn’t be aware that ordinary low-income workers in elementary occupations, particularly single mothers, buy low cost used cars to take their children to school and drive to work,” she said.
“They can’t afford the million-dollar-plus Porsche Cayenne and the Mercedes Maybach favoured by some PNM ministers. The Prime Minister can declare that ‘cars not critical’ because he has a fleet of luxury vehicles at his command!”
Bring law for working from home
Persad-Bissessar also called for laws to ensure fair conditions for those working at home in the COVID situation.
“As employers look for greater efficiency and productivity gains, there’s greater potential to exploit workers and deny well-established benefits and statutorily protected entitlements,” she said.
“Government should consider a new form of labour inspection machinery to supervise the advent of working from home.
“Isolation and loneliness have also been flagged as psychological variables demanding greater employee assistance strategies and counselling services … female employees, including single mothers working from home, may also have to tutor online education for their children plus undertake household work.”
She added, “I suggest Government dialogue with employers to ensure that parents receive reasonable time off once per week to collect assignments for their children. A single working mother reported that she was threatened with being fired for taking time to go to a primary school to receive her child’s assignments. This in the context where the children have no IT devices and online learning is not available.”
Persad-Bissessar also called for a hold on privatisation of the Port Authority and sale of gas stations until procurement law is in force. She warned against sale to “friends, family and financiers” and of job losses at those two locations and possibly at Wasa and TTEC.
She queried if gas station sales spelled closure for NP, which owns 73 of T&T’s 113 gas stations and whose management amounts to 70 per cent of NP businesses and most of its profits.
“Government can’t continue to ‘Blame Kamla and UNC’ that had a sell-by date and that’s expired,” she added.