May 2, 2004
Whatever the Public Holidays Committee was thinking of when it recommended that four more holidays be added to our already inflated quota of thirteen is almost impossible to fathom. And if that were not enough for the business community to digest, the committee in its wisdom has decided to recommend that Boxing Day should be dumped - in other words it is proposing to curtail the very festivities on which the commercial sector depends for a large proportion of its annual sales.
The least that can be said is that the committee appears to have been serenely unaware that this is a fragile developing economy, and that every time an additional non-working day is added to the holiday year, people's livelihoods are affected. And it is not just the larger operator who has to be considered here; it is also the small man/woman - the fruit seller on the side of the road or other small vendor, the mini-bus driver or conductor, and any self-employed person who leads a marginal existence in economic terms.
For anyone involved in production, there is the decline in output which extra holidays entail, and the consequent reduction in competitiveness. In this age of globalization, when we are fighting to maintain our traditional markets and desperately seeking to locate a niche in new ones, here we are shutting the country down for a considerable portion of the year, making ourselves inaccessible to overseas buyers or trading counterparts. And those enterprises which are forced to stay open on holidays, or choose to do so, will have to pay their employees double time, thereby increasing their costs at a time when so many businesses are already struggling.
In fact, the remit of this committee was only to consider the inclusion of May 5 and May 26 within the public holiday roster without necessarily increasing the annual total. These dates make up two of the four holidays it put forward, and Parliament duly approved them for inclusion in the calendar on Thursday; presumably the others - Amerindian Day and African Holocaust Day - will be up for eventual confirmation in the not too distant future. While there was no difficulty with May 5 as a date in and of itself, the danger was that if a holiday were given to celebrate the achievements of one group, it would open the floodgates to all other groups who would then demand equal treatment. And that is exactly what has happened.
The committee's solution to the problem of the increase its recommendations entail, is, as mentioned above, to eliminate Boxing Day, and to cease granting Monday as a holiday if the actual celebration or commemoration falls on a Sunday. The first thing which should be noted about this proposal is that the committee specified that there should be two exceptions to the principle: May 5 and May 26. Why these two days should be excluded from the proposed rule is a mystery; what we will now have, therefore, is a situation where Independence Day and Indian Arrival Day will always get the extra day if they happen to fall on a Sunday, but Emancipation Day and Christmas Day, for example, will not.
It so happens that August 1 falls on a Sunday this year, while Christmas Day falls on a Sunday next year. Assuming, therefore, that the principle passes into law, and that the committee's recommendation about Boxing Day also comes to be reflected in the Public Holidays Act, Christmas 2005 will be nothing more than Sunday - which would be to miniaturise the Christmas season in a way which the late Mr Burnham could only dream about. The general point, however, is one of fairness; there cannot be a 'principle' from which some holidays are exempt.
While the above objection relates to the application of the recommendation, there is a problem with the recommendation per se. The committee in its report concluded that if its recommendations were accepted there would be a "distinct possibility that the number of working days being celebrated as National Holidays may very well be reduced." Exactly what the basis for this conclusion is, is obscure. Perhaps the members simply looked at the calendar for 2004, where they would have discovered that Eid-ul-Azha, Phagwah, Youman Nabi, Emancipation Day and Boxing Day all fell on a Sunday, and assumed that this was the norm.
The reality is, however, that this number of Sundays coinciding with public holidays is somewhat unusual. Over the previous five years, in contrast, there were two years when no holidays at all fell on a Sunday, two when one fell on a Sunday (one of them being May 26), and one when two fell on a Sunday. For most years, therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that there would not be much of a reduction in the holiday total, if any, by applying the principle.
The committee notwithstanding, Boxing Day will probably have to stay - apart from anything else, the bulk of the urban workforce would simply not turn out to work even if it were axed. The question is, therefore, what other holiday can be dispensed with? The obvious choice is Caricom Day, which according to the report was declared a public holiday pursuant to the agreement reached at the inaugural meeting of Caribbean heads of government in 1974. Why Guyana should consider itself still bound by this part of the agreement is puzzling, since almost every other Caricom territory either never instituted the holiday in the first place, or has since abandoned it. At the moment, St Vincent is the only member which like Guyana keeps Caricom Day. Certainly, Guyanese would never miss it if it went.
May 5 is already a fait accompli, since even if the law could not be changed in time, a declaration for this year has already been made. But as stated above, for economic reasons we cannot afford any other holidays at the moment. It may be that in due course given the way the trade union movement is going, that the need for May 1 to be a national holiday will diminish, and instead Labour Day could be celebrated on the first Saturday in May, for example. That would free up another holiday slot.
In the meantime, the Government should set an example, and hold off issuing a declaration for May 26, even although Parliament has approved the date as a holiday in principle. Given the Government's emotional attachment to Independence Day, for reasons which are well known, its temporary sacrifice might persuade the Amerindians and Africans to refrain from pressing their legitimate claims for the time being either. Four more holidays at this juncture in our history can only hinder development, not promote it.