Pension bills delayed until September

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The Senate failed to pass the Pension Bills again on Friday, as Opposition members sought and got a further delay in concluding the debate.

Leader of Government Business Senator Kamina Johnson Smith was initially opposed to a further delay in passing the Bills, noting that they had been sent to the Senate from April, after being passed by the House of Representatives with 38 amendments, and that a further delay could threaten the country’s economic growth programme.

However, after a warning from Opposition member Senator Lambert Brown that passing the bills could lead to trouble with member unions of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions (JCTU) and their new 60 per cent wage claim, she requested a 10-minute suspension of the debate, which actually lasted close to 45 minutes, to consult with the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service and report back to the Senate.

Brown, who heads the University and Allied Workers Union said that if the Government wanted the public sector unions to moderate their 60 per cent wage claim for the 2017/2019 contract period, “which has already caused a stir”, it would be unwise to complete the process of passing the bills, because the claim was also intended to balance the five per cent salary deduction that public servants would need to contribute into the pension fund.

“The 30 per cent in each year has caused a little stir, and if you want us to moderate the wage claim, which is part of the compensation for things like these, I suggest the Government suspend the debate and wait until the Senate comes back next week or after emancipation [holiday], with an emancipated approach,” Brown insisted.

After the break, Senator Johnson Smith said that while the ministry was concerned about the failure to pass the Bills on Friday being interpreted as “a lack of political will to move the (pension) issue forward”, they took the position of seeking “as great as possible” bipartisan support around the issues.

“And they agreed with me that, certainly, the very hard work that the technical people have done in setting out the amendments and ensuring that the Bill is technically stronger than it was previously, that hard work could be undone and certainly wouldn’t be recognised, if we passed it today,” she added.

She noted, however, that since the debate started in the Senate in early June, the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service had engaged in discussions with the president and a vice-president of the JCTU, as well as representatives of Bustamante Industrial Trade Union, National Workers Union, Jamaica Teachers’ Association, the Jamaica Police Federation, as well as other workers’ bodies, to discuss the issues, at the request of Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

“They signed off and (reached an understanding) on all the matters that were outlined by Senator Brown earlier. While there were issues which will not be met in the bills, there are issues which have been met by the amendments. and there has been agreement reached that, in respect of other matters, it is not possible for the Government to address them at this point in time,” Senator Johnson Smith reported.

She continued, “They have recognised that in the interest of the country, and they in fact understood that the Bills would have been taken and passed today.”

“It is good for us all to recognise the context in which we are delaying this Bill. It is in the interest of seeking bipartisan support on the work that has been done, because we feel confident in the amendments that have been put forward and in their soundness,” she added.

Leader of Opposition Business in the Senate, Senator Mark Golding, said that he was glad that “good sense had prevailed” in delaying the passage of the Bills to accommodate further exploration of the 25 amendments the Government has planned to add to the Bills.

“The full purpose of this is to get the best possible Bill for the people of Jamaica, and I think the IMF will be fully understanding of that and that there is no lack of political will on either side — as regards the need to reform the public sector pension system,” he said.

Senator Johnson Smith said that the debate would likely resume in early September, when parliamentarians return from the summer break.

The two Bills — The Pensions (Public Service) Act, 2017 and, The Constitution (Amendment)(Established Fund) (Payment of Pensions) Act, 2017 — seek to establish a defined benefit contributory scheme — to which all pensionable public sector employees will contribute five per cent of their salary, as well as constitutionally establish a segregated fund for the contributions, and to gradually increase the retirement age to 65.

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