photo: Ralph Cantave

PHILIPSBURG – On St. Maarten there is still no clarity about the cost-cutting measures the island’s government implemented in 2020 regarding the employment benefits of public and semi-public civil servants by 12.5%. Last week St. Maarten’s Constitutional Court heard a landmark case regarding this long running case. This didn’t lead to a breakthrough.

After hours of deliberation between attorneys representing the government and the Ombudsman of St. Maarten, the judges of the Constitutional Court requested further information regarding St. Maarten’s poverty line, an impact study, minimum wage and the figures regarding persons on social benefits so that they can render their advice as soon as possible. The other two national ordinances challenged in court were the reduction of remuneration packages for Members of Parliament and Ministers by 25% and limiting salaries of top gross earners in the semi-public sector to 130% of the salary of the Prime Minister; referred to as the “Jacob’s norm.”

The case was filed on April 26 2021 by the Ombudsman of St. Maarten which was led by a complaint filed by the Committee of Civil Servants Union (CCSU) last year. The hearings opened with arguments made by Attorney Jason Rogers on behalf of the Ombudsman who challenged the legality of the implementation of the laws and its infringement on the constitution based on articles 15 and 16. Article 15 opens with “everyone is entitled to undisturbed enjoyment of his property” and article 16 “everyone in Sint Maarten shall be treated equally in equivalent circumstances.”

‘Your court is the only hope we have right now’ – Attorney Jason Rogers

Rogers referenced the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which widened the meaning of “enjoyment of property” and includes salary, pension and employment benefits. He added that Member’s of Parliament weren’t able to vote freely or with their own conviction. In his closing statement, Rogers said “your court is the only hope we have right now.”

Dire financial constraints
According to Richard Gibson Jr. the attorney for the government, St. Maarten was in dire financial constraints hence their decision to accept and implement the condition for the first tranche of liquidity loans. He stated that St. Maarten had no possibility to find money without cooperation with the Netherlands. He also expressed that their court presence was to seek legal grounds for the ordinances. Gibson argued that the cuts served a public good given that they were fairly made and “compatible with social security of the public.”
He also said considering the impact on the economy the condition to implement the ordinances prevented mass lay-offs and allowed the government to provide its services along with payroll support for the private sector.

Throughout the hearing, one of the judges made mention a few times that the government’s lawyer has “homework” to do regarding the lack of conclusive data. They particularly asked for clear information regarding the island’s poverty line and how many people live beneath it, how many persons are receiving social and unemployment benefits and the island’s minimum wage. They also requested a list of the semi-public institutions that will be affected by the ordinances.
The judges also questioned why the government did not initiate an impact study to determine the effects of the cuts. The government could not explicitly state how long it would the ordinances would be in place.

‘Normal people don’t live in an abstract world, they live in a real world’ – Judge Bob Wit

Judge Bob Wit stated in the proceedings that the requested information is necessary before their judgement is rendered. “Normal people don’t live in an abstract world, they live in a real world”, Wit stated. He also added that if the contested temporary ordinances are not found to go against the Constitution, civil servants may individually take it to the civil court. Wit concluded by saying the verdict will be given in a reasonable time.