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Dear Editor: Privatisation and retrenching workers won’t fix Wasa

“[…] How will retrenching 2500 workers and putting the delivery of water in the hands of another foreign water management company result in the delivery of a safe and reliable water supply 24-7 to the citizens? …”

The following Letter to the Editor about the latest report about the Water and Sewerage Authority (Wasa) was submitted to Wired868 by Gerry Kangalee of Rambert Village:

Photo: Wasa headquarters in St Joseph (via guardian.co.tt)

The so-called revelations about Wasa made by the cabinet sub-committee have been public knowledge for years and years. Who didn’t know Wasa is a hotbed of corruption is who didn’t want to know.

What is laughable is the pointing of fingers at the management of the utility and putting forward the position that a super-manager is going to guide the solution to the problems.

In fact, Wasa like many other state enterprises is far from being a renegade enterprise. It is working exactly how it was meant to work.

And that is not a Wasa problem. It is not even a state enterprise problem. It is a result of how the political and governance system works, which is certainly not in the interests of the working people and the poor.

Ken Howell, in an article published on the National Workers Union website on 2 October 2018, hit the nail on the head when he said: “Wasa, just like Petrotrin, T&TEC, TSTT and other state enterprises, has always been the feeding troughs of the PNM. The UNC, in its various incarnations, was not bashful; they too helped themselves to their share of the pie.

Photo: Minister of Public Utilities Marvin Gonzales.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2020)

“They all knew of the poor governance systems, the lack of transparency, the slow pace at which financial audited accounts are presented to the auditor general’s department and to the parliament.

“The real issue is since that is well known, then why have successive governments failed to fix the problem? Well, that was because state enterprises have always been the cash cows from which the politicians their family, friends and financiers are usually able to draw their milk and steaks, with which they are accustomed to fatten themselves.”

Our political system is based on the you-scratch-my-back syndrome—corruption, contractocracy, contact, nepotism, political patronage to party hacks and sections of the voter bank. CLR James once described Caribbean governments as gangster governments, and he wasn’t far off the mark.

It is ludicrous for the cabinet committee to talk about efficiency being sacrificed for political patronage. This is how our system operates, whether PNM or UNC, it makes no difference.

In his speech on public-private partnerships at the Hyatt on Tuesday 1 November 2011, the then minister of finance, Winston Dookeran, spoke of privatising public utilities, ports, airports, health care provision and pensions. When it comes to economic policy there is no difference between PNM and UNC—Massa Bull, Massa Cow!

Photo: Former Minister of Finance and Central Bank governor Winston Dookeran.

Public funds are directed into the pockets of political hustlers and confidence tricksters. The treasury is raided to accumulate capital for political operatives and financiers. The state is not organised to act in the interests of the vast majority of people, but it is set up to create millionaires and billionaires who produce nothing, resolve no problems and use their political platforms to ascend into the ranks of the one per cent.

Anyway, who sacrificed efficiency for political patronage? Njac never formed the government, neither did MSJ, nor PEP, nor the myriad parties that spring up around election time. Ruling party politicians condemning political patronage is like Satan admonishing sinners to repent.

The committee recommended the hiring of an international water management firm. Wasn’t that tried already with Severn Trent? And it turned out to be a resounding failure, as was the putting of TTPost in the hands of New Zealand Post International.

What is this efficiency that the sub-committee speaks about? With less than one-third of the population getting a proper water supply, one would think that efficiency would refer to the ability of the utility to deliver water for all, as the slogan put out in the 1990s suggests. But no! Efficiency for these functionaries of a failing, corrupt system is defined otherwise.

James Lee Young, executive director of the Regulated Industries Commission (RIC), to which Wasa must apply for a rate increase, told the Joint Select Committee of Parliament on 28 March 2018, that Wasa has a poor rating for efficiency.

Photo: Wasa workers repair leaking pipe (via Looptt)

He defines efficiency not as Wasa’s ability to supply a safe and reliable supply of pipe-borne water, but as the number of employees per thousand connections. He claims Wasa has 12–13 employees per thousand connections and that top companies have three to four employees per thousand connections.

This is a clear signal that when Wasa applies to the RIC for a rate increase, a major consideration by the RIC is going to be how many workers per connection Wasa has. What Lee Young did was set the stage for implementing the conditionalities contained in the 2012 loan to Wasa of US$600m from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) for the ongoing Wastewater Rehabilitation Project.

US$50m of that loan is for the reorganisation of Wasa. According to the IDB, the plan is to ‘decrease the number of employees per 1,000 connections from 12.5 in 2011 to 5.8 in 2016’. This means that more than half of Wasa’s workforce in 2011 was supposed to have been eliminated by 2016. That reduction didn’t take place then but is surely about to take place soon.

On page 203 of the Draft Estimates of The Revenue and Expenditure of The Statutory Boards and Similar bodies and of The Tobago House of Assembly for The Financial Year 2021, there is a table showing details of Wasa’s expenditure for the years 2019 and 2020 and its estimated expenditure for 2021. There is in the table a subhead/line description called personnel expenditure.

Photo: Leaky tap (by Shridhar Vashistha on Unsplash)

Contained in that subhead are items like salaries and cost of living allowances, overtime and allowances for monthly paid officers, wages, (cost of living allowance) Cola and overtime for daily rated workers, government’s contribution to NIS and group health insurance for the bargaining units.

Personnel expenditure for 2019 amounted to $976,190,319; revised expenditure estimates for 2020 amounted to $755,509,000; estimates for 2021 amount to $378,004,500. This means that there is a projected decrease in personnel expenditure from the 2020 figure to the 2021 figure of $377,504,500.

Personnel expenditure, therefore, is being slashed in half. Wasa employs approximately 5,100 permanent, temporary and so-called contract workers. If personnel expenditure is to be reduced by 50%, it is only logical to conclude that the workforce will be reduced by a similar margin.

So, the cabinet committee insults our intelligence when it says no decision has been taken to retrench 2,500 workers.

When the oil and gas money was running, the governments could have avoided the strictures of the international lending agencies, but now that the piggy bank has been smashed, the IADB conditionalities are going to be implemented.

Photo: Petrotrin refinery.

The mantra is cutbacks in the public sector, increased moves to privatise and divest, wholesale retrenchment of labour, rate increases at Wasa, T&Tec and who knows what else, and more and more pressure for working people, who are already under immense stress and strain.

Pretending to put the blame on management, as was done at Petrotrin, TSTT and Wasa, is a sick joke, when the management was appointed by—and on a day-to-day level is controlled and directed by—the politicians who chook their fingers into every pie.

How will retrenching 2500 workers and putting the delivery of water in the hands of another foreign water management company result in the delivery of a safe and reliable water supply 24-7 to the citizens?

Wasa is not the problem; T&Tec is not the problem; TSTT is not the problem; neither is PTSC. The problem is that our post-independence system of governance is working exactly how it was designed to work: in the interests of the neo-colonial political and economic elites and against the interests of working people and the poor.

Our focus should be on how we can build a system that puts the needs of the people first and not the needs of billionaire soucouyants who suck the lifeblood out of the people’s purse through the exploitation of labour and the wholesale raiding of the treasury.

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  1. The question is how do we fix the obvious inefficiencies of all these critical service providing entities mentioned so that its customers and taxpayers can all get value for money. In the interim monies that could be put into more productive use (health, education, natl security etc) is being use to keep these companies afloat while at the same time the economy teeters on the brink. What’s the solution.