In the public Central Committee meeting, broadcast live via local radio on June 25, Commissioner Chris Johnson briefed on the island delegation’s negotiations with the national cabinet during the recent “Caribbean Netherlands week” (CN) in The Hague. This writes The Daily Herald.
The praise received by Saba for its model financial management achievements gives it a position of strength, an advantage springing from the island’s political stability, Johnson argued. He commented on the dualistic system, saying, “Politics is a game, but one that has to be played with more transparency, one of information, one about getting the message out to the people” and that is why he sees the public forum as an important medium of accountability. Commissioner Johnson summarised the objectives of the “CN week” as two-pronged, first on general consultations and second about setting the transitional evaluation workgroup. Johnson believes that “Unless we have some type of big moment to relook at social [welfare] levels, to look at the over-legislation of these islands, we will not have real change.” He reiterated for local audience the message delivered to national counterparts on lobbying for the raise of the minimum wage. “We have some of the highest cost of living in the Dutch Kingdom and we have these lowest welfare levels,” Johnson claimed. He deplored the insignificant increase of 6.1 per cent implemented last year by the Dutch cabinet and the “unacceptable answer” he received that, “We don’t have enough statistical information.” He questioned how there are no statistics for the requested 20-per-cent increase, but there is supporting information for “this very specific 6.1 per cent.” He stressed that the information the local government has, comes from direct conversations with employees. “Saba is small enough that we can actually meet with all our employers. Our business community is telling us the current low minimum wage does not reflect economic reality.” The commissioner believes civil servants randomly picked social welfare levels and minimum wages from the various islands for Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba (BES) without studying if such rates were sufficient compensation for the cost of living on each specific island. “Each economy is different,” Johnson argues “Statia has NuStar, and now that it is part of the Netherlands, it has the second biggest port of the country after Rotterdam. Bonaire’s landside is larger than Aruba and with a hospitality infrastructure.”
Johnson replied to Dutch State Secretary of Social Affairs and Labour Jetta Klijnsma’s challenge on lacking information. “I told her without wanting to be rude that she can send every overpriced consultant, and they can prepare the most beautiful documents and talk to us about how this affects inflation, but Saba is small enough for us to speak directly with all business owners to ask if they are able to pay it or not. They already agreed to pay that, so what more information can you possibly get to tell me otherwise.” Johnson stated that “If we continue to deal with patches here and there, we’ll never fix the system. We do need some kind of a Big Bang moment, something that holds all parties responsible. Otherwise we keep having these blaming games between the Second Chamber, the ministers, the civil servants and we get caught in this vicious circle of The Hague with no results.”
Johnson’s hope is that the outcome of the joint evaluation will provide “something concrete that would have to be respected.” During the “CN week” the BES commissioners of constitutional affairs signed with Dutch Minister of Home Affairs and Kingdom Relations Ronald Plasterk a document establishing an evaluation committee that would consist of five individuals, whose names cannot be disclosed at this time. Johnson is content that committee will have the power to request research from civil servants and will include in the report all studies being done, not selectively picking some. The independent committee also has to interview and involve local stakeholders, such as the business community and social organisations. Johnson believes the evaluation process would also look into the overregulation hampering the tourism economy, such as the redundant customs and immigration checks between islands belonging to the same country. Johnson believes that the rational for joint BES “CN weeks” has dissipated with each having divergent priorities. He hopes that a national multi-year vision for the island’s development with clear benchmarks would help avoid political bickering.