Sunday, May 14, 2017

A season of discontent

...Govt facing worker backlash on several fronts

PORT OF SPAIN PROTEST: A member of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) displays a placard during Wednesday's protest against the disbanding of TDC outside Parliament at the International Waterfront Centre, Wrightson Road, Port of Spain. —Photo: CURTIS CHASE

Ancel Roget

DESPITE having signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Joint Trade Union Movement, having made public point about “reintroducing” tripartism, both suggestions among a broader tapestry of a promised new alliance with labour, the Government now faces a mushrooming cloud of worker discontent 18 months into its return to office.

The Oilfields Workers Trade Union (OWTU), the leading partner in the JTUM, whose president general signed the MOU with the Prime Minister, then in his capacity as Political Leader of the People's National Movement, is outfront in its criticisms and condemnation of the Government.

Ancel Roget is sparring for a fight over plans for the restructuring of the State oil company, Petrotrin.

He says there is to be no privatisation, that not a man must go, and he has taken over the fight by the retrenched steel workers for the Government to get involved in proposals they have for re-starting what was the ArcelorMittal plant.

This after Roget led the OWTU in taking the country to the brink of a strike in January, the averting of which saw the Prime Minister intervene and impose a five per cent interim pay increase on the company.

The Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union which represents workers at Angostura and which is a member of the National Trade Union Centre, is calling out the Government for what it says is the Rowley administration's refusal to take action against Dr Rolph Balgobin, who faces allegations of sexual harassment at Angostura, where he is the chairman.

TDC affair


In the last week, the Communication Workers Union has thrown down another gauntlet, over what has been described as a snub, in the Government's decision not to hold prior discussions on its decision to shut down the Tourism Development Company.

On the strength of having declared this a breach of good industrial relations practice, an infringement against clauses in the Industrial Relations Act and in the relevant conventions of the International Labour Organisation, the union has threatened to go to court.

Taking this as insult, the labour movement as a whole elected to suspend participation in the National Tripartite Advisory Council.

This is the Rowley-administration vehicle through which hope and optimism had been marketed for an embrace as perhaps never before, about consultation among the social partners, in an era demanding greater adherence to the imperatives for social peace in the country, and the economy.

Taking its own issue with the handling of the decision on the TDC shutdown, the Employers Consultative Association, the other partner in the NTAC triumvirate, accused the Government of inconsistency, at least.

ECA director Keston Nancoo said the handling of this affair was not in keeping “with what is expected when there is a partnership affair”.


Poverty factor


While all these fires simmer, the Government faces another broadside legal challenge by a separate group of workers, at the same time as it appears exposed on the critical agenda item of meeting the needs of the poor and the vulnerable.

Having effectively repudiated the latest study on poverty in the country, the Government is left without a road map for addressing those needs

Martin Terry Rondon, the PNM chairman of the Sangre Grande Regional Corporation, had just wrapped up hearing pleadings from five single mothers when we spoke last week. One of them has five children under her care.

They went to his office in search of relief, but there was hardly anything he could offer them.

She had been issued a food card, but this has been discontinued when the current administration began a review of the programmes for poverty alleviation, now the entire suite of programmes has been shutdown, as the Government says it is contemplating a new regime.

“It breaks my heart,” Rondon said. “Every day people come here seeking assistance and there is nothing I can do.”

As at the end of February, the Ministry of Social Development shut down the three units in its Poverty Reduction and Eradication programme, displacing almost 100 workers and managers, all of them contract officers, and moth-balling a range of services which were meant to cater to the basic needs of the country's poorest and most vulnerable.

“It breaks my heart I am feeling it very badly,” Rondon said.

His office in Sangre Grande has been shut, along with others in Tunapuna, Chaguanas, Rio Claro, San Fernando, Penal, Prnces Town and Cedros.

Dwayne Denny had been head of a National Poverty Reduction and Eradication Programme, which had been established “to aid implement projects and programmes that would aid in the alleviation of poverty in the country”.

One programme was called “SEED”, Sowing Enterprise and Entreneurship among some of the most vulnerable.

This programme maintained telecentres in Piparo, San Juan, Tunapuna, Penal, Princes Town and Couva.

They provided free services to those wanting to develop computer literacy skills, as well as to engage in small business services free of charge, such as typing, faxing and photo-copying.

In one year, he said, these units provided assistance to more than 32,000 people.

He also supervised a micro-project fund, involving a range of non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations, through which successful applicants would receive grants of up to $15,000 to start up small operations.

The programmes were based on a model which emphasised community development, and which was geared towards “moving people from welfare to work”.

In many cases, he said, successful participants were able to move off dependence on food cards.

More than 1,500 people coming through these programmes were trained in book-keeping, cash management, customer service and conflict resolution, among other skills.

Gary Tagallie is a poverty eradication specialist who spent the last 15 years at the ministry, over its various manifestations, heading the Policy, Research and Planning Unit.

The programme he had been overseeing, began with funding from the European Union in 2002, he said.

Although he said there had been constant tinkering with the programme, and this accelerated under the previous administration, the decision by the current administration to shut it down entirely, was carried out “without any plan and vision”.

Even though the workers who have been sent home, have been hearing of plans for the development of a new structure.

“You never know,” he said last week.

He said poverty reduction was never integrated into the established order at the ministry, and whereas under the last administration, the delivery apparatus on poverty reduction was split in two, the current administration ordered that the operations be reviewed and the units re-integrated..

“We did it and then they disestablished poverty reduction altogether. It was really shocking that it would go that way,” he said.

Afraz Ghany was the man in charge of what could be described as the nerve centre of these operations.

He headed what was referred to as the “people issues unit” one which was tasked with co-ordinating the varied areas in which poor and vulnerable citizens required Government assistance.

“Anybody who would have had an issue would come to us, or be sent to us first,” he said.

People who are disabled, those who sought public assistance, housing or a housing grant.

His unit maintained a database of more than 100,000 people who needed immediate assistance in many cases.

This included food, clothing, assistance in how to access other kinds of government services.

His team had built up relations with more than 30 different State agencies, making referrals and securing help for such clients.

These included medical services, co-ordination on job-opportunities for unemployed persons, contacts with WASA and T&TEC and with Childline, among others.

Added to this there was a Direct Impact service, in which staffers undertook walkabouts in targeted communities across the country, talking with residents, finding out about their problems and what kinds of assistance they needed.

This unit was the one which delivered emergency relief to citizens in cases of natural disaster.

“Nobody will be able to go anywhere at the moment to get any services,” he said. “Nothing has been put in place.”

He said when employees began getting letters terminating their contracts at the end of February, they were asking questions.

“Why are we being sent home. Nobody was giving us any answers.”

One permanent secretary said it was “a decision of the executive”.

Terry Rondon in Sangre Grande said he has got “no word from anybody” about this decision.

As we spoke, he was on his way to meet with a family in Balandra, in which the father had gone missing.

He wasn't sure what he would tell them.

He had no means by which he could truly render any material assistance to them if that was needed.

“It breaks my heart. There is plenty poverty in this part of the country,” he said. He had to dip into his own pocket to help a young mother who came to see him, “with a five-day-old baby”.

Heading to court


All the workers who have been dismissed from these units, some of whom had been working on contract for as many as 15 years, including former public servants who had been retained after retirement, have taken a decision to go to court on the matter.

They have joined a trade union which represents persons who have worked in the government service.

“What they didn't take into account is that you have people who have been working for a long period of time,” Gary Tagallie said.

Several of them had started out on two and three year contracts, which then were reduced to six months, and then under the current administration three months and one month in some cases.

In many of these instances, contracts were broken to allow for one or two day lapses before new contracts were issued.

In a majority of cases, people worked without benefit of any kind of leave.

Permanent secretaries were aware of the situation but refused to intervene against the dictates of the politicians, they claim.

“It is going to cost them a lot,” one of the displaced workers said. “There are discussions about whether we should go to conciliation at the Ministry of Labour. But we want to go to court. The Industrial Court has already determined that this practice is illegal.”