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MPs discuss increase in pension age with SER

PHILIPSBURG--Members of Parliament (MPs) expressed concern about the small amount of money pensioners have to live and thrive on in the high cost of living environment of St. Maarten in a Central Committee meeting of Parliament held with Chairwoman of the Social Economic Council SER Oldine Bryson-Pantophlet on Tuesday.

The meeting was primarily focused on amendments to the National Ordinance regulating pension and the pension age. However, the majority of the discussion centred on the trials seniors face.

United People's (UP) party MP Johan Leonard called for a study of the labour market to be carried out to determine if the increase in the pension age will cause more youth unemployment. An increase would translate into older people staying two years longer in their current positions. "I agree with increasing it, but I am worried about the consequences."

Independent, former National Alliance (NA) MP Frans Richardson called for a study to determine the factors affecting the lives of pensioners.

Independent, former NA MP Patrick Illidge said the high cost for utilities continue to affect pensioners. He asked what SER was doing to tackle the cost of living and matters such as price control in the country. Bryson-Pantophlet said SER's role was that of an advisory body to government.

Like Illidge, NA Parliamentarian George Pantophlet wants to see the high cost of living faced by pensioners addressed and remedied. He wants the pension amount to become a "living pension" in the same way parliament has called for the minimum wages to become a living wage.

MP Sylvia Meyers-Olivacce said the realities of St. Maarten's economy and how seniors are affected needs to be looked into by all parties to ensure the country was not creating first class and second class citizens.

In response to the MPs' concerns, Bryson-Pantophlet, who was accompanied to the meeting by SER Secretary-General Gerard Richardson, said the country is still to establish a poverty line. The poverty line established by the Netherlands Antilles more than five years ago was still in use.

SER agreed in its advice that the pension age should be increased to 62 from the current age of 60. Bryson-Pantophlet said people are living longer, healthier lives and are more productive. An increase in the pension age is in line with international standards on pension regulations.

SER submitted the unsolicited advice to the Council of Ministers and the Parliament about the increase of the pension age. That advice also covered SER's agreement with the increase of the government pension amount from NAf. 726 to NAf. 1,000. The amount increase went into effect as of January.

However, the amendment to the law – the legal basis for the levying of increase to the AOV payment by contributors – has not been adopted as yet, Democratic Party (DP) MP Roy Marlin said as he called for the handling to be sped up. It is this legal basis that MPs have to approve.

The approval of the amendments may not occur very soon, because of other parliamentary hearings to be conducted with members of the Council of Ministers and an actuary, said President of Parliament Gracita Arrindell (UP).

All MPs were in agreement with the already in place increase of the AOV pension amount, but said it was still too little for pensioners to live on.

Bryson-Pantophlet agreed with MPs saying that the NAf. 1,000 means a pensioner has to live on NAf. 250 per week if they receive the full pension amount. "This sometimes covers GEBE [utilities – Ed.] alone ... don't bother with cable TV. That's beyond reach." Pensioners also have to dip into their pockets to cover some medication costs, she said.

She said although the AOV payments to pensioners is not meant to be "a full income" for many pensioners this is the case. "Something has to be done to give these people some relief."

Bryson-Pantophlet cautioned that the pension amount cannot be increased just for the sake of giving the pensioners an increase. She said the matter has to be reviewed so the pension fund "does not end up in a hole."

To mitigate pension woes in the future, the SER chairwoman called on Parliament to encourage young people to participate in savings plans and employers to offer all employees participation in company pension plans. SER is also in favour of a mandatory pension plan for the entire country.

In the meeting MPs also approved the attendance of Arrindell to attend the presentation of certificates to Coast Guard cadets in Curaçao on June 19 and to the change of command ceremony of the Royal Marines in Curaçao on June 26.

Eight of the Coast Guard cadets who have completed their nine-month theoretical training are from St. Maarten. Four of them are women. The cadets will come to St. Maarten to carry out their one-year practical training in the coming months.

MP Marlin asked Arrindell to request that the Coast Guard host graduation for St. Maarten cadets here in the future. This will allow the cadets' parents, extended family and friends to attend. He believes that as a country St. Maarten's cadets should graduate at home.

Also attending the meeting were MPs Jules James and Theo Heyliger (UP), and Hyacinth Richardson (NA).

Absent with notice were MPs Leroy de Weever (DP), Romain Laville (independent) and Louie Laveist (NA).

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