The fact that the 2018 budget estimates show that the Territory has a shortfall and will have to borrow money to meet its obligations and the fact that a confidential document cited plans to privatize the public service has caused some legislators to announce beforehand that they will not support any plan to send public servants home.
The conversation on whether or not Government intends to layoff public servants began before the sitting commenced as a rumor that Government was forced to respond to in a statement that was issued on 16 March. In that response it was stressed that layoffs are not being considered.
“The Government of the Virgin Islands is aware of erroneous misinformation that is being circulated by some persons through different media regarding the Public Service. The public is advised that the Government of the Virgin Islands has not sanctioned the removal of any person nor has it cut any department within the Public Service, as irresponsibly communicated by others,” the statement said.
However, as the debate on the Virgin Islands Recovery and Development Agency Act, 2018 got underway Leader of the Opposition Hon. Andrew Fahie, Third District Representative, Hon. Julian Fraser and Minister for Education and Culture, Hon. Myron Walwyn alluded that the notion of public firings was not far-fetched.
The suggestion that some public servants can find themselves out of work was first made by Hon. Fraser who noted that in the Public Consultation on Recovery and Development of the British Virgin Islands document it was stated: “The Government is focused on improving efficiency in the public sector to reduce running costs and create a business friendly environment. The proposed measures for achieving this objective, included: significantly reforming the public service to a leaner and more efficient operation focused on the delivery of core government functions and reducing the wage bill.”
This Hon. Hon. Fraser suggested “Leaner and reducing the wage bill translates to one thing Madame Speaker — you cannot get lean unless you lose weight. In this case losing weight means dropping some slacks. Some names and some numbers have to be reduced from the public service. Reducing the wage bill I don’t think you will cut people’s salary I think the way you will do that is to send some people home and the wage bill is reduced.”
The Public Consultation on Recovery and Development of the British Virgin Islands document also mentioned that Government is open to the option of privatization as a way to reduce the cost burden on central government. This according to Hon. Fahie might be the manner in which the public service downsizing takes place.
In making his suggestion the Leader of the Opposition presented a scenario: “You see this privatization they there talking about of the public service — yes we got to do certain things, but I realize now what [is]happening. If I make the ports private that means if I had a 100 people hired before it was private, the 100 people gone to them. I didn’t fire them, but when they reach over here it’s a board handling that statutory body or private organization? It is being held outside of government, so then they could get cut and the government could always say according to Pontius Pilate — my hands are clean, but the people gone home.”
Hon. Fahie said that the scenario is close to realization as he has heard reports that staff at the BVI Ports Authority are on half salary. “It already start by the Ports, most of the staff there at half salary. Now you going to tell me that the Ports pay out dividends to TPP and put the staff on half salary…You don’t pay out dividends, and put the staff on half salary because once you pay out dividends that means the shareholders saying we realized a profit and don’t tell me it wasn’t paid because I have all the answers to my questions here,” Hon. Fahie declared.
Meanwhile Minister for Education and Culture, Hon. Myron Walwyn announced in his debate contribution that he has told his colleagues that he will not support any move to trim the public service. The Minister made realistic observations as he explained that “When things get tight in your business or your operations the first line you go to is labour cost, that is where you start because it is the biggest line item for most businesses.”
However, Hon. Walwyn noted that things are hard for the government and that managing expenses depend on the loan government hopes to get. Still Hon. Walwyn said that if the loan is not successful he would not support public service downsizing.
“If we cannot get that $50M loan I done tell ayo long time, if ayo touch the civil service I jump off the bus, I’m not with yall on it; and I would be one of them marching. Ayo want to see marching, you think I skinny for nothing I could walk you know. I would be up in here,” Hon. Walwyn told his colleagues.