By Leonart Matthias
In this part we will discuss the story of how the scheme came into being and how it degenerated to its current state. There are two Lionels and three Hursts in this part so it may be helpful to get familiar with the names.
On 22nd November, 1962, the Antigua Trades and Labour Union (ATLU) got an appalling shock of unmistakable horror when Dr. Lionel Thomas (Economic adviser to the government, later High Commissioner of the West Indies Associated States) handed a report on retirement to Antigua’s Labour Minister, Lionel Hurst.
According to this report the pension plan for government employees paid too little to sustain retirees; more that four out of five retired government workers died within six years of retirement. Many refused to retire, some stayed on until physically disabled, because less than one in fifty were eligible for a minimal pension. Government did not cover disability. Other than government, only the Sugar Factory workers had a pension plan paying pensions to about fifteen pensioners. The union got a wake up call.
The old guards of the ATLU attempted to suppress the report from its membership. But one of the ‘young and impatient’ members, Prince Hurst, got wind of it and harassed V.C. Bird and Lionel Hurst to introduce a national pension scheme for Antigua, but without success.
When the ATLU split in 1967, Prince Hurst found himself on the first executive of the new union, the Antigua Workers Union (AWU), along with other former members of the ATLU, including its General Secretary. By 1971, the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM), the political party supported by the AWU, became the government and Prince Hurst became one of its senators in parliament. The AWU’s former General Secretary, George Walter, and its First Vice President, Donald Halstead, became Premier and Labour Minister respectively. Prince Hurst continued to ring the alarm as an executive committee member of both the PLM and AWU. Prince was soon successful.
In April of 1972, Donald Halstead tabled the Social Security bill in Parliament. To the surprise of the government, the ALP did not support the bill. Speaker after speaker raved that it was the worst piece of legislation ever conceived. Finally, Denfield Hurst literally tore into the bill, ‘it was not worth the paper it was written on’. He then shredded the bill before the whole house, threw it on the floor and marched out, followed by Joseph Myers, Donald Sheppard and Ernest Williams (all honourable men), while Speaker of the House, Cecil Hewlett, was standing on his feet to restore order.
Parliament had to be adjourned temporarily. The words of the Comrades still affect the scheme today. In Donald Sheppard’s view, “We don’t want the people to feel that we are opposing the bill for opposition sake. Even if we return to Parliament, we are not supporting that bill.” While Denfield Hurst was even more brash: “We are not supporting this wicked scheme. You know that our answer is no, and that we are going to give back to the people all the money that they have put into this wickedness when we get back in power.”
The legislation, notwithstanding, was enacted on 24th April, 1972, almost ten years after the Dr. Lionel Thomas’ report on pensions in Antigua. When the Sugar Factory went bankrupt in 1967, all of its workers had lost their pensions, yet the opposition was in relentless upheaval. Reuben Harris, deputy leader of the APP called for a national strike. ATLU’s General Secretary, Adolphus Freeland called on his membership not to allow any money to be deducted from their pay. John St. Luce, the General Secretary for ALP also called for a national strike. The ALP bellowed that the PLM would soon be out of government, and that once elected the ALP would scrap the scheme and give back all contributors their money.
Then in June of 1975, the ALP and APP were merged, so the opposition stood a much better chance at the polls. The following month, leader of the APP, Rowan Henry, along with his wife, were savagely murdered. Elections were merely six months away. ALP won. The Party was now in a position to show that it meant business with respect to Social Security.
Immediately, a strong signal was sent to the community that Social Security was on its way out. Denfield Hurst was made head of Social Security; Reuben Harris was made Minister of Finance. From day one, the first month-end (February 1976) as Finance Minister, Harris refused to turn over contributions deducted from government workers into the scheme. Many businesses did the same or refused to deduct any contributions at all. John St. Luce then became finance minister and continued, heel-and-toe, with Harris’ reckless negligence. This continued with every finance minister for the next thirty years.
Adding insult to injury, millions from the Social Security fund were invested in private companies in assisting to build colossal empires. Social Security had also invested significant sums in the Antigua Barbuda Development Bank, a pet-project of the PLM, for small businesses and farmers. Comrades lined up at the ABDB and borrowed money that they were not expected to repay.
The inevitable however, soon happens – sickness, old age and death visits. Hurst was able to seek medical treatment in New York at the expense of Social Security. And when he died, ‘was buried in grand style by the same scheme for which he tore up the legislation’. Whether or not this was the interpretation of giving back the people all the money ‘they have put into this wickedness when we get back in power’ is not known. The scheme though has never recovered from this wickedness.
The history of the scheme cannot be ignored when contemplating solutions to remedy the ‘dire financial position’ of the shaky scheme. These persons by nature of their positions held, had to have been ‘in their right mind’ knowing the consequences of their actions. Many of them have accrued millions while the scheme wobbles penniless with ‘no liquid assets.’ Private businesses have gained millions at the expense of ABSS. Instead of contributing to election campaigns these private businesses should be made to donate to Social Security which gave them their vibrant start.
That said, the ‘tough decisions by the policymakers’ should not only include recommendations by the Actuaries that affect the very needy, but other means also, that consider questions of justice, equity, ethics, fairness, responsibility and morality: like holding all successive finance ministers accountable for their actions – from the Estate of V.C. Bird Sr. right down. By collective responsibility, each cabinet member over the period should also be accountable to refund the scheme, both in proportion to his millions, and also to his tenure as a cabinet member. Those on pension should have a portion of their pension diverted to Social Security also. After turning these assets over to the fund then it may be determined which of the recommendations by the Actuaries may be implemented and to what extent, however harsh and however oppressive: the physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.