My Fellow Citizens and Residents,
Throughout our beautiful twin-island Federation, workers are taking time out from their labour and are in a celebrative mood in observance of Labour Day. I am therefore delighted to greet you on this very special occasion when we celebrate our nation’s workers and their inalienable rights.
This day is a celebration of the working class – it is a day to honour and show solidarity with workers. Today, I salute the determination and hard work of countless workers who play a major role in our Federation’s progress. Indeed, workers are our greatest assets, and so this public holiday is a fitting testimony to the hard battles that workers have fought for on such issues as fair pay, social justice and workers’ rights over many years.
Labour Day recognizes that work is part of everyone's daily life and is crucial to a person's dignity, well-being and development as a human being. Today therefore presents an opportune time to reflect on just how deeply committed the Team Unity Administration and I are to empowering the people of this great country.
I am proud to report that our economy provided over 25,000 jobs monthly in 2018 – the largest job count to date. This is a sign of the excellent health of our growing economy year on year.
Remarkably, our Federation has recorded the largest numbers of Jobs, Workers and Social Security Contributors, the most Business Licenses issued in a year and the highest annual Wage Bill within the first four years of our Team Unity Administration.
Social Security data reflect an expansion in jobs in the country across several economic sectors. Public Administration and Defence accounted for approximately 9,600 jobs in 2018, Hotels & Restaurants accounted for over 3,000 jobs, Wholesale & Retail Trade accounted for just under 3,000 jobs, and Manufacturing and Transport, Storage and Communication combined to produce over 3,000 jobs.
This Government recognizes that if our economy is to remain strong and competitive, our society cohesive and our development sustainable, then we must realize our shared vision and objectives. That is why in 2016, we formally established and operationalized the National Tripartite Committee to strengthen participation and consultation on labour matters.
The National Tripartite Committee provides the opportunity to consult with partners in the labour market on matters of social and economic importance, and to receive proposals for adoption and amendment of legislation. This is part of the overall agenda of government, to ensure good governance and a truly consultative and inclusive democracy.
Additionally, the National Tripartite Committee has succeeded with the assistance of the International Labour Organization (ILO) to complete the final draft of our new Labour Code. The code will implement protective measures to ensure comprehensive and relevant standards that effectively and efficiently address the labour market and employment relations in St. Kitts and Nevis.
The Team Unity Administration has done much work through the Ministry of Labour to ensure unions have a voice and a place at the table of consultation and partnership. Our Administration has created an environment that supports the development of unions. We have seen a new union, the United Workers Union, properly registered and working with the Ministry of Labour on behalf of workers. Its members have joined the ranks of solidarity with our workers as the other unions have done over the years.
As a result of our Government’s concerns with lifting our nation’s lowest-paid workers out of poverty, we have also established the Minimum Wage Advisory Committee. The committee’s purview is to consider the National Minimum Wage and make recommendations to Government for its review. This committee represents a wide cross-section of our nation and meets regularly to deliberate on this important issue.
Our Government’s strong support for workers was clearly evident in our intervention efforts with the displaced workers formerly of Lutron Liamuiga. We implemented a strategic intervention in collaboration with other stakeholders to ensure that the workers were transitioned to other areas of work including Jaro Electronics. We have paid over two million dollars in severance claim payments for these workers. This quick settlement of the severance entitlements of the workers represents a stark contrast to the delay experienced by workers in receiving their severance payments under the previous administration. This was because the government of that day allowed the fund to be depleted. To protect workers going forward, the Government has engaged an actuary to provide advice and support in order to enhance the viability and sustainability of the Severance Fund for present and future generations of workers. Labour Day 2019 is a day of celebration for these workers!
The health and welfare of our entire nation, including all our workers, is also a priority area for the Government. Our workers’ health is central to their happiness and well-being. The Team Unity Administration has also demonstrated unequivocally our commitment to the advancement of health initiatives, including the implementation of Universal Health Care. While we continue to ensure that the conditions our people work under are safe and healthy, we have expanded our vision and commitment to providing Universal Health Care for the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis.
On this Labour Day, our Team Unity Administration takes great pride in having resolved the short payment of more than 2,000 former workers of the St. Kitts Sugar Manufacturing Corporation (SSMC) and securing benefits that were denied to them under the former Denzil Douglas-led administration. You will recall that when the sugar industry closed in July 2005, the then-government promised $44 million in severance payments, but only $28 million was actually paid out.
This Team Unity Administration fulfilled one of its campaign promises and paid over 2,000 former sugar workers their due funds which they would have earned during their tenure at the sugar estates; in some cases, their tenures spanned over 40 years. We ensured that all former sugar workers were adequately compensated after having been denied or short paid severance for which they had just entitlement.
I pledge to continue looking out for our country’s workers, particularly those in the prime working years of their lives. The Team Unity Administration has focused greater policy attention on bringing young people into the workforce by way of skills training and empowerment through certification. This focus grew out of the realization that the longer young people remain out of work, the worse their job prospects become and the more their skills erode, their lives are disrupted and their dreams are deferred.
The Skills Training and Empowerment Programme (STEP) is intended to provide our young people with a firm grasp of the fundamental requirements of working proficiently in their desired fields, giving them solid work experience, improved employability and a step up on the social and career ladder.
In stark contrast, a productivity and performance assessment of STEP’s precursor by the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) revealed that fewer than 140 of the more than 4,000 workers had received any form of training under the ill-conceived PEP set up under the Douglas administration.
What’s more, STEP now has access to $300,000 USD out of the total funds provided by the CDB to the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Enhancement Programme in St. Kitts and Nevis. That’s great news for the young people and their families who are benefiting from an enhanced and expanded technical and vocational skills training programme that also provides soft skills training on topics such as conflict management and money management.
Social Security data show that, in 2018, females held 53% of STEP jobs – an important fact because women head up more than 50% of our nation’s households. Young women are therefore being given opportunities for professional growth so that they can care for and support the children and families that rely on them.
Although Social Security data show the percentage of workers earning minimum wage has declined over the past four years, our compassionate Administration is cognizant that some families still struggle to afford basic necessities like child care, food and health care.
Our recently introduced $500-per-month Poverty Alleviation Programme specifically intended for such families is making inroads into alleviating poverty, enabling children from poor families to improve their life chances and employment prospects.
This well-received initiative joins a slate of compassionate policies, such as our payment of a $25 weekly subvention to young children from low-income households who attend all our 15 public early childhood centres; the vast majority of private early childhood centres are benefiting from this initiative as well. Very early on in our first term, we also removed 17% value added tax (VAT) from food, medicines and educational supplies.
Last Christmas, our Administration treated around 1,250 Government Auxiliary Employees (GAEs) to a holiday pay for the first time in 10 years and paid a year-end double salary for an unprecedented third consecutive time. Civil servants are also the beneficiaries of our Government Employee Mortgage (GEM) financing programme.
Additionally, we increased the risk pay for our nation’s security forces by 20% and over 100 national security personnel who travel regularly between St. Kitts and Nevis for work have seen a 40% increase in displacement allowances and a 50% increase in ferry allowances; they hadn’t received an allowance increase in 10 years so we righted another wrong from the past administration.
My fellow citizens and residents, the major takeaways from all of this is that the nation’s labour market is at its strongest in decades and families are much better off now than they were before our Team Unity Administration. Today, our Administration continues to affirm the struggle for labour rights by protecting the dignity of the working class. On this Labour Day, I am proud to say that the Government is leading by example on the issue of improving working conditions and employee morale.
Happy Labour Day! May God continue to favour us through his blessings.