Persons who work at registration centres across the country and who are appointed to observe the conduct of voting stations during elections, may soon be eligible to receive pension and gratuity.
These workers were denied pension for nearly two decades because under the Antigua & Barbuda Representation of the People Act, they were not recognized as government employees.
According to prime minister Gaston Browne, these employees were told that they worked for political parties and not for the government and as such were not owed benefits from the state.
“The irony about it, they are paid by the government, they are not paid by political parties, and political parties do not have any sustaining form of revenue to pay anyone,” Mr. Browne said.
“If indeed it is the political parties that appoint them that would have the responsibility to pay their pensions, it means that these individuals would not be paid because the political parties do not have the capacity to pay pensions,” he noted.
The workers, he shared, had served in the public service for up to 20 years since 2002 but there was no provision to make them pensionable.
He noted that several of these employees have since retired and at least one person has died, never having received any pension for their work.
On Thursday, members of the Lower House voted unanimously to change the Representation of the People (Scrutineers Pension) Bill of 2022 to ensure that payments would be made to their retirement fund.
Once voted on by the Senate, scrutineers will receive a pension similar to pensioners under the Non-Established Pension Act. They will receive retroactive pay and the amounts will be charged to the government’s consolidated fund.
Who will be awarded
Persons to be awarded under this bill must have served for a minimum of 10 continuous years or have acquired payments collectively amounting to 10 years or more.
To qualify, a person must have reached the age of retirement (65 years old) or their service would have been discontinued prior to reaching the age of retirement by the party or independent member for whom they worked.
Attorney general and labour minister, Steadroy Benjamin said these workers are the responsibility of the government and that it was the “right thing to do”. “Conscious, social justice, demands that this be done,” he declared.
Who is to blame?
Even while members on both sides of the aisle supported the measure, arguments ensued over which party was responsible for not retracting the primary legislation.
Members of the Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) were adamant that the fault was that of the then government the United Progressive Party (UPP) who refused to change the law between 2004 to 2014.
“I don’t care what government it was passed under; this should have been done a long time ago because we’re talking about people,” remarked leader of the opposition, Jamale Pringle, who even while throwing his support behind the bill, maintained that it was not his party’s doing.
Barbuda MP, Trevor Walker on the other hand felt that the timing of this bill was just another expression of political treating and a gesture to “sweeten the pot” for voters for the upcoming general elections.
“There is a desperate attempt at this time, at the last stage to try and please people, to try and curry favour people in a particular way because elections are imminent,” he said.
“Yes, and I have scrutineers in Barbuda who would have been working for a long time, they appreciate this but you can’t come and fool Antigua people and Barbuda people at the last minute. You cannot come and curry favour them with a little pension and gratuity and expect that they are going to forget who passed the original bill and that you had two terms to get this done,” he explained.
Prime minister Browne denied Mr. Walker’s assertions of treating and said that paying benefits was the “just thing to do”.
The parliament did not say how long after being passed, the payments would begin to be disbursed and whether they would be awarded in lump sums.