GOV’T ASKED TO RECONSIDER 7-DAY PUBLIC HOLIDAY

Many citizens are still experiencing the hardships caused by COVID-19 and TC Harold; many people still live in tents, and school children in Santo and other northern islands are still studying under tarpaulins — they will not see much in a long celebration: Leader of Opposition Ralph Regenvanu. Photo: Jane Joshua|File

The seven full days declared as public holidays for Vanuatu’s 40th Independence Anniversary is a huge financial blow at a critical time of survival for many business owners.

The Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) stressed this in its response to the announcement of additional public holidays for the purpose of celebrating the country’s 40th Independence Anniversary.

President Obed Moses Tallis, acting on the advice of Prime Minister Bob Loughman had declared five additional days as public days for Vanuatu’s 40th Independence Anniversary.

This effectively means employees will leave work on Wednesday July 22 and resume work on August 3, 2020.

Published in the official gazette yesterday, the declaration lists Thursday 23 July; Monday July 27; Tuesday July 28; Wednesday July 29 and Friday July 31 as public holidays for all people working and residing throughout Vanuatu, for the purpose of celebrating the 40th Independence, along with the 24th which is celebrated as Children’s Day annually and the 30th itself, making it a total of seven days altogether.

Believed to be one of the longest public holidays declared for Independence celebrations, the declaration has sparked concerns for struggling businesses who are trying to keep staff working during the COVID-19 pandemic threat, particularly as many small businesses are not recipients of the Government’s Economic Stimulus Package and are digging deep into their savings to keep staff employed.

“Common practice is to pay employees time and a half on public holidays, therefore making staying open even more expensive for businesses,” the VCCI pointed out.

“While many are still dealing with the effects of COVID-19 and TC Harold to their bottom line, many employers can’t afford to pay their staff to stay open. Even those who may opt to stay closed will still now be expected to pay their staff for these multiple public holidays while making no income.

“We have begun to field phone calls from our business members since the announcement who simply cannot afford to keep staff on. With Independence celebrations looming it is feared many will not have much to celebrate this coming 30 July.”

VCCI noted that of concern is also the closing of banks and access to banking services during this critical time, stating, “There have been questions raised as to how ATMs will be restocked with cash during the public holiday period, making many citizens concerned they may not have access to money for the holidays. Small vendors, hoping to access change for their stalls will not be able to do so. Yet another reason that this public holiday announcement has many concerned.

“There was no consultation with private sector employers on this decision.

“The Independence holidays were initially planned for Thursday 30 July and possibly Friday 31 July 2020, providing most people a 4-day weekend. Employees who wished to celebrate in full the week’s events could then have applied for leave, Thursday 23 July, Monday 27 to Wednesday 29 July 2020.

“We ask that the Government reconsiders their decision in light of the impacts it will have on businesses. We recognize the need to celebrate the achievement of 40 years of independence, but it should not come at the expense of the people who are struggling in this time of crisis to provide jobs and services to the community”.

The Office of the Leader of the Opposition has also labelled the lengthy public holiday as “unprecedented and excessive”.

In a statement released last night, the Opposition Bloc expressed disappointment and alarm at the Government’s declaration, saying the decision is very ill-advised and just plain wrong because it gives the wrong message about what independence means and is about, and completely disregards the fact that Vanuatu is going through a period of massive economic downturn caused by the dual crises of Covid-19 and Tropical Cyclone Harold.

The Opposition said the message for this 40th Independence Anniversary should about what independence stands for and how it was achieved: it should be a celebration of a country that became independent and is becoming self-reliant through hard work and sacrifice.

“Being independent means being able to provide for yourself and achieve development through your own efforts and work,” the Opposition stated.

“The principles of independence and self-reliance that drove poorly educated church laymen and their rural compatriots to be victorious against two of the world’s prominent powers in 1980 have now been forgotten as politicians who have never had to run a business in their lives decide that we should all take over a week off work to celebrate using the peoples’ tax money.

The Leader of the Opposition asked, “I wonder if they ever stop to think who is employing the population and generating the bulk of tax revenues for the country? It is the private sector: sole proprietors, the self-employed, rural farmers, local companies and foreign investors who are struggling to stay afloat within the crippling crisis caused by Coronavirus and TC Harold. Through this decision the Government is telling us that independence is not about hard work and living within your means; the Government is telling us that independence is about not working, enjoying yourself at the expense of others, and not worrying about having to pay your own way in life. That is a sad message for the Government to be promoting on this important anniversary.”

Secondly, the Opposition noted the massive economic downturn caused by the border lockdown means that over 80% of businesses are suffering and struggling to make money.

“Most companies have had to lay off staff and those staff still working have had their salaries reduced. Under the previous Government, such companies would have qualified for the Employment Stabilisation Program (ESP),” the Opposition stated.

“But under the current Government, the majority of companies were told they were ‘unqualified’ to receive such payment. And now, with this latest announcement, the Government has told these very same businesses that, even though you do not qualify for the ESP, you still have to give your employees 9 days off work and pay them. This at a time when they are already struggling to make ends meet and keep their workers employed.

“Most people will have little money to spend on celebrations. Just last week the Reserve Bank advised people to spend cautiously during this period, which means it is well aware of the effects of the economic downturn. The Government appears to be oblivious to this and seems to think that people will appreciate and participate fully in a week-and-a-half celebration.”

“Many citizens are still experiencing the hardships caused by COVID-19 and TC Harold; many people still live in tents, and school children in Santo and other northern islands are still studying under tarpaulins — they will not see much in a long celebration. The extended public holiday will slow down recovery and rebuilding efforts. In addition, so many children have missed so much school already due to COVID-19 closures. Losing precious days of schooling during an already shortened year is frustrating and will further hamper our childrens’ education. While many workers in Vila and Santo may want to commemorate the anniversary of our Independence, the reality of their job situation robs them of the resources to celebrate freely.

“After 40 years of independence, it seems we have not matured and continue to celebrate unnecessarily. At this time, in the midst of a national crisis, the Government must give the right message, that it understands the suffering of its people, that it understands the daily struggle for money, that it stands with them to be frugal with its expenditure, and that we, every one of us, still have a lot of work to do, a mountain to climb, before we can rest.”

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