A time for real shared sacrifice

  • Curtis Dickinson, centre, and David Burt are at the heart of determining the lengths to which “shared sacrifice” extends to government workers (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

    Curtis Dickinson, centre, and David Burt are at the heart of determining the lengths to which “shared sacrifice” extends to government workers (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

David Burt has received high marks for his leadership in the Covid-19 crisis. The only time when the Premier has faltered is when his “spinstinct” has gotten ahead of his better judgment.

That happened when he started talking about Bermuda’s “aggressive testing” for the virus at a time when the testing was anything but.

And now he has done it again with his declaration that his government was “leading from the front” on wage cuts by having Cabinet ministers and other legislators take a pay reduction to help the Government cope with the island’s galloping deficits.

As has been widely pointed out, the legislators’ act of “leadership” is only coming weeks after people across the island lost most or all of their incomes as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, so at best the Government “is leading from behind”.

Still, at least they have woken belatedly to the idea that if people are being asked to sacrifice — and people are making huge sacrifices now, perhaps more than they have in 75 years — then they will do it more willingly if everyone is sharing in the pain.

The real test of the leadership of Mr Burt and his government is not whether they can take a pay cut, which is mainly symbolic in terms of the national budget, but whether it can bring government workers along with them.

So far, they appear to have failed, and if Mr Burt and his team cannot make a deal, this will count as the signal failure of their coronavirus crisis management.

But it will also reflect badly, and not for the first time, on public-sector workers and their trade union leaders. The reported reaction of the Bermuda Public Services Union to what is a better offer than anyone had a right to expect in these times is shameful.

The “sacrifice” was in fact virtually no sacrifice at all. Although the public-sector workers were being asked to take a pay cut, this was being offset by suspensions in pension payments, which would result in the same take home pay. In other words, they were not being asked to make any kind of real sacrifice.

Certainly, the union would be right to want to safeguard its pensions and to ensure that the deductions were paid at a later date when the Government’s finances were less fragile. But in the meantime, Bermuda’s public-sector workers would be no worse off.

They would not have to go to their landlords and ask for a rent reduction or a delay in payment. They would not have to go to their bankers and ask for relief on their mortgage. They would be in the same position that they were previously to pay their electricity and phone bills, and to pay for their groceries.

This stands in stark contrast to thousands of people working in hotels, restaurants, retail businesses and more who have been laid off and are receiving $500 a week — if they are lucky — assuming the Government can afford to keep paying it.

This newspaper has already recognised the vital importance of ensuring that people remain in employment and, if they are laid off, receive some kind of support to survive a crisis that was not of their own making.

But at the same time, the Bermuda Government is facing the worst fiscal crisis in living memory, and this newspaper has also stated it supports temporary reductions in public-sector spending, including wages. This is unavoidable when personnel costs make up 50 per cent of the Government’s operating expense. Take employment out of the picture and finding sufficient savings to keep Bermuda from defaulting will be near impossible.

It is beyond belief that, having been given an offer that is absurdly generous, the BPSU would have the gall to turn it down. It does, sadly, reflect badly on the people entrusted with the running of Bermuda’s government.

It has been widely acknowledged that the countries that have been most successful in managing the pandemic have been those where the population has the most trust in its governing institutions. That’s because their populations have trusted their leaders enough to shelter in place and to make the sacrifices necessary to “flatten the curve”.

To date, Bermuda has shown a remarkable level of consent and consensus. But this consensus is conditional on people having faith in their leaders, including civil servants, and in those at the very top being able to ensure that sacrifices are indeed being shared throughout the community.

Reconstructing Bermuda after this crisis has passed — and it will pass — is going to be a monumental task requiring unprecedented co-operation. It can happen only if the whole community feels the sacrifice has indeed been shared.

If moral force is not enough to dissuade the BPSU, then their members should consider the practicalities of finance minister Curtis Dickinson’s problem. If he cannot find savings through this very good deal, he will need to look for them somewhere else, and it is inevitable that he will have to consider layoffs, redundancies and worse.

People everywhere are being confronted with difficult choices. Bermuda is facing its gravest economic crisis in living memory. Everyone, including the BPSU, needs to do their part.

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Published May 21, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated May 21, 2020 at 7:53 am)

A time for real shared sacrifice

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