Midas touch or Medusa look at the BIDC?

It would perhaps be the political understatement of the past seven years to say the Freundel Stuart administration has not had the Midas touch. Some might even deem as equal understatement any suggestion the Government installed by the Barbadian electorate in 2008 has had more of a Medusa effect.

There is a saying that Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives. By extension, one would assume, it is also incumbent on governments not to ruin lives either. The goings-on at the Barbados Investment & Development Corporation (BIDC) over the past few weeks are worthy of attention by all Barbadians in the employment
of the state.

Government’s massive lay-off programme that saw more than 3,000 employees going home was publicly announced and conducted with some degree of openness. There was the expected weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth common with such exercises.

Since that time, Government has gone about reducing staff at certain statutory organizations with less public fanfare, but occasioning similar throes of pain. But recent developments at the BIDC would suggest that Government, or that body of persons entrusted with carrying out its dictates, is not protecting the people but seemingly seeking to ruin their lives.

In February, 2005, Circular No.2/2005, M.P.6100/28, relative to The Pensions (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2004 –– Change In The Retirement Age was dispatched from the permanent secretary in the Ministry of the Civil Service to every other permanent secretary and head of Government department in Barbados. That circular related to the mentioned legislation dated December 23, 2004, which made provisions for all persons in the Public Service at January 1, 2005, to retire compulsorily at the age stipulated under the National Insurance Scheme.

“That age is presently sixty-five (65) but will move to sixty-seven (67) by 2018,” the circular informed.

Some of the provisions of the act were highlighted: “The compulsory retirement age in the Public Service has been harmonized with the retirement age under the National Insurance Scheme. That retirement age will gradually move to 67 years by 2018. Among other things, the amendment means that officers listed in the schedule to the Pension Act, Cap. 25 under Section 13C will have the same retirement age as other public officers.”

It was further noted: “The new provisions with respect to the compulsory retirement age are also applicable to statutory boards which fall under Cap. 384. Those persons who hold the post of general manager (by whatever name called) at statutory boards can now retire in accordance with the provisions outlined at paragraph 2 (1) above.”

If that was not abundantly clear, it was pointed out in the circular at Section (3) that the amendment superseded the option which might have been exercised by officers at the time of the 1984 amendment to the Pensions Act “to retire at sixty (60). Therefore, without taking any action, officers who had opted to retire at sixty (60) can now continue to work beyond that age. However, officers whose sixty-fifth birthday falls between January 1, 2005, and December 31, 2005, must retire on or before that date”.

It was emphasized to every permanent secretary and head of department in Barbados that officers did not have to exercise an option in relation to the new retirement age since the voluntary age of retirement remained unchanged. It was also pointed out that persons who joined the Government service after June, 1984, could continue to retire at 60 if they wanted to, and those who were in the Government before that date had also retained their voluntary retirement age.

Additionally, people who joined the service after January 1, 2005, would also be able to retire voluntarily at 60.

Fast-forward to the troubled BIDC and the board has decided to voluntarily retire 13 workers who reportedly, though in various stages of approaching age 60, did not request voluntarily retirement. We will assume, hopefully correctly, that all heads of departments and permanent secretaries in Barbados have had the benefit of at least a secondary education and can read. If this be the case, why is there an issue at the BIDC? Unfortunately, it is all a consequence of muddled and inefficient governance. There has been similar disquiet at the former Barbados Tourism Authority where a number of persons voluntarily retired in 2014 and were the last to know.

Surely, entities committed to tourism, and, in the case of the BIDC, to business investment and development, are deserving of operating in an environment of stability and within a framework where the laws of Barbados are respected, and not circumvented at best, or at worst, ignored. At a time when productivity and efficiency are being touted as two of the planks on which Barbados is expected to escape from the prevailing economic quagmire, confusion now apparently reigns at the BIDC.

Since 2008, that corporation has had five chairmen in Mark Thompson, Vere Browne, Dr Don Marshall, Ashley Toppin and presently Benson Straker. It has had “five” chief executive officers in Basil Lavine, Diana Brooks (acting), Sonja Trotman (acting), Dr  Leroy McClean and again Ms Trotman now on appointment. The BIDC has also been under the oversight of four ministers in the forms of George Hutson, Dr David Estwick, Denis Kellman and Donville Inniss. Nothing about such a turnover –– in just seven years –– suggests stability.

From reports emanating from the BIDC, as well as from the workers’ representative the National Union of Public Workers, staffers feel betrayed not only by their top management but particularly by the Government of Barbados. It has been confirmed by the NUPW, and not denied by the BIDC board, that those persons to be retired at age 60 did not have the benefit of their labour representative entering into prior consultation with their employer. So much for protocols and Barbadian law.

There is the fear that the BIDC saga could have a ripple effect if allowed to be swept under the carpet. Indeed, the BIDC might have been caught in the slipstream of the BTA saga. In view of Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler’s indication of pending mergers of other statutory corporations, as well as the imminent June 15 Budget, there must be other workers nearing age 60 waiting to find out from someone –– anyone –– if they too have voluntarily retired.

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