Vidale: Closing Petrotrin’s refinery does not address issue of state-instigated corruption

It has now been more than a week since it was announced publicly that Petrotrin’s refinery would be closed down. We have been bombarded by information which can be classified as facts, alternative facts and outright fake news. Interpretation of this information has been shrouded in hues of red and yellow, and classist sentimentality.

Photo: The Petrotrin oil refinery in Pointe a Pierre.
(Copyright CNC3)

The reality is that the majority of the population is at great pains to decipher all of this data—perhaps this is the intent to begin with. When I originally contemplated responding to the issue, I was going to write on my own view of the documents which I have before me. However, several conversations over the past week have prompted me to go in a slightly different direction.

Let me start by giving some context to what has upset me the most. For yet another year, as we marked our independence, we are embroiled in a discussion about who we are and how we do things; but for all the wrong reasons and in an extremely toxic environment. As such, the opportunity for the discourse can be lost as interest groups are forced to retreat to garrisons to defend their interests.

It is clear to me, based on my examination of the arguments in the public domain, that identity and ideology have been deemed far more important than data in arriving at conclusions. So if you listen long enough—and carefully—it comes down to how some people feel about Ancel Roget and the OWTU; and by extension, trade unionism. While this is obviously not a scientific conclusion upon which to make a decision, that does not make it any less of a factor.

In August, the Cipriani College of Labour and Cooperative Studies in collaboration with NATUC hosted a symposium on Social Protection. The next day the headline in the Newsday read: “Vidale: Young People Blank Unions.” I was not even a panellist. I was chairing the session.

Photo: OWTU president Ancel Roget (right) and his comrades have vowed to respond to the government’s intention to shut down the Petrotrin refinery.

The comment was against the backdrop of a growing trend of anti-union sentiment, which seemed uncomfortably common place for me. With the growing use of ICT since the 1990s, communication processes have changed significantly and my lament was that the TUM has simply not kept up. I went further to state that they must address their public image, otherwise opposing forces in the society will use their image against them and turn their own children away from their cause.

So, to my comrades, there is work to be done. You cannot on the one hand acknowledge the existence of varied and opposing forces within the society and then leave the communication of your messages—and as such the shaping of your image—in the hands of your detractors.

What is your internal independent communication strategy and mechanism? Where is the museum, the book, the website, the blog, the podcast, etc, which correctly positions the trade union movement as one of the most important contributors to the development of Trinidad and Tobago? In this age of information at your fingertips, inaccessibility means obscurity.

That being said, the attitude toward trade unionism is more than a communication issue. It speaks to the very core of what kind of society we have propagated. I addressed this at length in my last two blogs. There is a growing sentiment that vulnerability in a social context is self-inflicted and can be corrected by an attitude adjustment.

So trade unions defend a false cause because primarily workers are lazy and unproductive and a better attitude will see them more marketable and earning a better income. At the same time, a parallel view is held that where unions have been successful and workers have decent remuneration packages, the workers are unproductive and overpaid and the unions are then disrupters to productivity.

Photo: The Joint Trade Union Movement protests against Section 34 during the People’s Partnership Government’s administration.

Hopefully the anti-union crew is still with me. Retrenchment and the threat of retrenchment is nothing new in the oil sector. In July of 1960, workers at TEXACO, Apex and later Shell, went on strike at the threat of redundancies. Despite the overtures of the affected companies for the Government to intervene, the only concession afforded was mediation.

An agreement was finally reached to keep essential services. During this period Dr Eric Williams defended the rights of workers to withdraw their labour. He went on to state that “(i)f there is one group in the community which is going to defend democracy and self-government, that group is the workers.”

In 1965 with the introduction of the Industrial Stabilisation Act, any such notion of workers’ right to strike or any acknowledgement of a just cause was legislated away. The 31st August 1962 did not, as an event, address fundamentally the legitimate issues of workers, nor did it interrupt the continuation of the plantation. Therefore, workers’ issues remained unresolved.

Between 1962 and 1965 over 450,000 cumulative work days were lost due to industrial action. Instead of attempting to dialogue to address the underlying concerns raised by workers, the response from the Government was to resort to the tactics of our former colonial masters. We have not looked back since.

It is apparent that the older we get, the closer we move the society forward to 1838 conditions. Of course we have nice shiny things now, so our return trip is much more comfortable.

Photo: Petrotrin workers in Pointe a Pierre.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian)

I am yet to be convinced by the reasons as to why the Board has refused to meet with the OWTU as outlined in the signed agreement. Moreover, the Board appointed by the political directorate cannot of itself be disconnected from said directorate. We cannot be this comfortable during our Independence celebration with such a blatant contempt for the people of this country.

It is also a surreal moment for us as many supporters of the current Government seem to have forgotten their own position on lack of consultation between 2010 and 2015. I have come to realise however that our principles in large part only hold to the extent that they do not take us out of our comfort zones.

As I said there is more than enough information to decipher without me needing to add to it. My objective is to consider the questions which I have asked and which have guided how I engaged the information. We have been told ad nuaseam of the financial woes of the company. In fact, Dr Keith Rowley went to great pains to tell us this in September of 2009.

The Handsard of 14 September 2009 tells us that Dr Rowley started his contribution by stating that, he had “heard the union talking about this as a union item and (he) did not pay a lot of attention to it. When (he) sat down to study the documents (he) realized what the unions were saying, and we have a big problem here.”

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
(Copyright Andrea De Silva)

Yet the OWTU today is accused of being complicit by virtue of being silent on the matter. He goes on to state the investment failures at the management level of Petrotrin and laments to the population that, “(w)e have to digest that in the context now of, ‘De money done’. We are now talking about raising revenue by taxation, ‘chirrup’ ‘chirrup’, household by household, land and building taxes, cigarette and rum taxes, as revenue raising measures. Do not be fooled by that.”

Much the same way we were asked by Prime Minister Dr Rowley to digest that “de money done.” So which Dr Rowley is the real Dr Rowley?

In the address to the nation on Sunday night, the Prime Minister admitted that corruption and mismanagement played a huge role in the challenges faced by Petrotrin; yet I have heard of no measures to hold persons to account or to prevent such malfeasance at state owned entities in the future. Where is the legislation to change how state boards are appointed?

Where is the legislation to introduce more punitive sanctions for those who would use state monies like their personal trust funds? I say this in the context of the recent punitive measures introduced to keep motorists in check.

If we want to correct the issues inherent in the current state of the refinery, then shutting it down does not address the fundamental issues outlined by Dr Rowley in 2009! No sah!

Photo: Leaders of the All Trinidad General Trade Workers Union protest. “We woh we money” is their constant cry.
(Courtesy ATGTWU)

We have been encouraged to join the chorus that workers are holding the country to ransom. That some 1,700 (a figure which we know is false) workers cannot be allowed to be propped up by the rest of us. The Prime Minister also ventured into unwarranted territory by putting the blame on these workers for our declined resources. This was gutter politics at its worst and should be condemned outright.

I put it to you that it is smaller groups of 12s and 20s, board members and Parliamentarians who hold the country to ransom. I also put to you that PNM supporters would have agreed with this position between 2010 and 2015.

The posturing of our Governments since 1962 are reminiscent of colonial ways and none of them fared very well from the backlash. We would do well to read in our spare time before developing and consolidating tactics which only embolden the resolve of workers.

All is not lost. As with all contradictions we are equally presented with a moment of opportunity. I have already suggested to my comrades in the trade union movement that this has to be the moment to re-educate the population on your history and purpose. I want to add that a one-day action will not cut it.

Rest and reflect on Friday and then what? What happens on Monday? Back to business as usual?

A clear agenda must be developed and articulated to the public at large. This is not just for their consumption but rather to get their buy in. There is a ground swell of discontent for the state of our nation but we have to ensure that objectives don’t get lost in translation. What do we want after Friday?

Photo: Members of the Police Service march during the 2018 Independence Day parade in Port of Spain.
(Copyright Ministry of National Security)

The Government has a role to lead policy and we must begin a process of national dialogue to have policy which protects our national patronage. It is easy to see these things in opposition.

I ask you to contemplate just one question: with all your fears of the return of the UNC to office, can you identify the changes implemented in the last three years which empower the state to hold office holders accountable for malfeasance?

As for the population at large, we have to demand more of our leaders. What we have been subjected to is simply not good enough. We must demand that the plantation be dismantled and that we discard the colonial entrapments of maximum leadership.

We can seize the moment or seize in the moment. Either way we will not be the same on the other side.

So at 56, what do you want for your collective selves?

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