Dirty Hands at SSB
Sunday, February 14, 2016, 21:07
By G. Michael Reid
While we can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life … we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age”. ~ US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in signing into law that country’s Social Security Act on Aug. 14, 1935
Although many credit the Great Depression of the 1930’s as the worldwide catalyst for Social Security programs, Germany had a similar plan in place dating as far back as the 1880’s. That program is credited with playing a key role in Germany’s massive and rapid growth of industrialization following its implementation. In the US, the Social Security program has also helped to make that one of the most developed and attractive countries in the world to live and work.
Belize’s own Social Security scheme was established in 1981, shortly before Independence. In his wisdom, the Father of our Nation, Right Honourable George Price recognized the need for such a scheme and used the US program as a model. The program was started with a fifty thousand dollar grant from government but quickly grew as the program proved a success. Starting in June of 1981 with a team of 26, the staff now consists of almost 300 employees.
The Social Security Funds are administered by a Board of Directors that includes five members representing government, two members representing employees (unions) and two members representing employers (one from Chamber of Commerce and one from Belize Business Bureau). On paper that is not such a bad composition but when we understand that all these are politically appointed and stand basically beholden to one man, the Prime Minister, then we can realize the true extent of the problem.
Since it inception, workers contributions have always been in excess of monies that are paid out. Records of 2006 reveal that while $33 million was paid out in benefits, almost $50 million had been collected; the disparity grows consistently wider each year. The ideal scenario would be to increase the benefits to contributors and afford people a better standard of living in time of need. Some retirees complain of receiving as little as a hundred dollars per month; hardly enough to provide for a decent shelter and food to eat.
Even with a modest raise in benefits to workers, there would still be excess in social security funds and no one would object to wise investment of the monies. People understand that it would not be wise to just have the money sitting there but careful consideration must be given to any such investments. Government has for too long been free and loose with this money, using it to bail out private companies and making unwise investments.
The idea was never to use social security money as some type of “slush funds” for government but rather to provide for worker’s benefits in time of sickness, maternity and old age. Today, the purpose of this very worthwhile program has been totally redefined and governments raid the kitty at will.
In November of 2010, Government dipped into Social Security money to bail out Belize Sugar Industries (BSI) with a ten million dollar loan. In October of 2012, the government again turned to Social Security to bail out Belize Electricity Limited (BEL), this time the amount was $15 million dollars. In February of 2014, the government was once again using social security funds for a ten million dollar bailout of the citrus industry. All toll, that amounts to a whopping 35 million dollar of poor people’s money dispersed in just those four years; all to rich multinational companies that are supposed to be making their own money. And now, government is once again milking this cash cow, but their recent decision to give twelve million to Santander is not going over well.
Santander came to Belize as Green Tropics in 2012 promising to invest 90 million US dollars to build a sugar plantation, a sugar mill and a processing facility. Notwithstanding that our own local farmers have long been facing persistent problems with this product which has seen ever diminishing returns and consistent over production. Each year, tons of cane is left in fields even after ASR came in promising to expand milling capacity. Farmers have been warned that in 2017, beet sugar will begin to compete with cane sugar and that they should expect even lower returns for their investment. Yet, Green Tropics figured that sugar is the way to go.
Belize has never been one to turn away foreign investment regardless of how shady it appears and this group came in, supposedly with tons of money and promises. From the outset there were problems and shortly after arriving in 2012, the company ran afoul of environmental laws. They were found digging a canal through Belize’s precious and guarded Central Corridor which provides sanctuary for our precious jaguars and other big cats and wildlife. They apologized, were taken to court and supposedly made to pay a fine.
Green Tropics, which by then had become Santander, then moved over to the Valley of Peace area where they were able to acquire some 20,000 acres of land. Again however, they created quite an environmental stir when they sprayed the entire area with the deadly chemical known as roundup. Farmers in the area were severely affected losing much of their precious crops of lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes and pepper. Farmers in the area are said to produce as much as seventy-five percent of all the vegetables consumed in the Belize, Cayo and Orange Walk districts.
This time, instead of apologizing, Santander served the farmers with eviction notices, claiming that they were on lands belonging to the company. Notwithstanding that many of the farmers had been working that area for over 20 years they were made to cut their losses and pack up and move. Fortunately, with the intervention of Area Representative Julius Espat, the farmers were able to reach a settlement with Santander and were given lands elsewhere. They had to relocate, pack up and restart from scratch. It would be good to get an update on to find out how that situation is working out for the farmers.
Anyway, we are where we are and last week we were informed that Social Security had approved this loan to Santander; but people are asking questions. The biggest question is how much foreign money has this group really invested in Belize? It seems that apart from a few borrowed dollars from banks in Guatemala, Panama and the US, most of Santander’s money has come from local banks; where is the foreign investment?
Belizeans have a term called “deadraise”. This is where a person comes into any type of gambling game or investment with absolutely no money. In corporate America, it is referred to as using OPM (other people’s money). We’ve seen this game played before and too often we get burned. It seems that we have once again been conned. It is okay though, for these con artists to play with monies from commercial banks but they cannot be allowed to gamble with our social security funds. Doug Singh with all his fancy talk can bob and weave and try to explain but whoever made that decision should be made to answer to the people. We need to restructure that Investment Committee and put people on there with the best interest of the people at heart. Stop playing games with the people’s money and start using these funds for the purpose which we were told they would be used for. It is time that we demand that government to keep its dirty hand off of social security money.
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