Last week Tuesday, Chinese workers protested on the northbound lane of the Uriah Butler Highway over not being paid wages for two months. Another of the workers' grouses was their poor living conditions. Their much-publicised protest raised the question about the true worth of a country hiring foreign labour for the construction sector. The debate rages on.
Mikey Joseph, president of the Contractors Association of T&T (CATT), said there are some shortfalls when it comes to hiring local labour to fill middle management positions at construction sites. He said CATT has made attempts to host training courses to correct this problem. "If we are talking about supervisors, technicians, yes, there would some weaknesses. We have challenges in terms of that middle management level in the construction sector. "What we have been attempting to do is promote training courses." Joseph said there should be a law requiring trades people to be certified.
"There is no law or specific requirement for trades people to be certified and, because of this, it's difficult to create the trades people you are looking for." He said programmes under the Youth Training and Employment Partnership Programme (YTEPP), Helping Youth Prepare for Employment (HYPE) and others, the Government has made some effort to have people certified, but more needs to be done. Joseph described his idea of a certification structure, saying a centre or body needs to carry out the process of certification. Referring to the National Training Agency (NTA), Joseph said certification is done but the pace is too slow. "The NTA already meets the mandate for certification but it is too slow. It can still work as the certification body, and YTEPP, together with other programmes, can provide the training facility. "Contractors have to take a responsibility to train their workers to improve their delivery methods."
Promoting local content:
Joseph suggests that foreign firms should have as much as 50 per cent local content with training included in their employment contracts. Joseph said there are many public entities which have the perception that CATT is trying to control who should be hired, which, he said, is not the case. As far as Joseph is concerned, local labour should be given first preference for every contract. "We have, as a society, to decide what we want and how we going to get it in a manner that will bring benefit to human resource. We have local people who are unemployed and foreign firms take their profit out of T&T."
Gregory Aboud, president, Downtown Owners and Merchants Association (Doma), said foreign labour needs to be specified as it appears the issue is of greater interest now, given the the Chinese workers' protests. Aboud believes the procedures for granting work permits have not been adhered to. "Many of our standard procedures, with respect to work permits, have been ignored in the recent widespread importation of Chinese labourers. "Generally, local wisdom has required that there must be some involvement of T&T nationals even when foreigners are allowed to work here," Aboud said.
He said in the same way that a local artiste must perform when foreign artistes stage shows in T&T, that principle should apply to foreign architects, engineers and contractors, and that contractors should be granted contracts once a certain percentage of local labour is included in contracts. Aboud said the perception is that the Government is required to import labour in order to fulfil its developmental objectives, but said the presence of Chinese labourers would not be appreciated until the projects in which they are involved begin to impact on T&T citizens' daily lives. "If imported Chinese labourers were building a four-lane highway to Mayaro or four-lane offshore causeway to Chaguaramas, there would be a better appreciation for their presence.
"If contractors from China were building 15 overpass connectors between Port-of-Spain and Piarco, the public would be a lot more receptive to their presence," Aboud said. He said if T&T does not have the labour to do a job, then T&T's Caricom member countries should be the first priority from which to source labour. "Priority should have been given to construction workers from neighbouring Caribbean islands, including Jamaica, where a huge unemployment problem is developing," Aboud said. He said there's a widespread feeling that contractors from China and foreign consultants and labour are helping us to put plates of gold and cups of silver on our dining-tables, and when they are through, we will be unable to serve any food in these fancy utensils.
Ministry of Labour
There is nothing wrong with having foreign labour in T&T, said Rennie Dumas, Labour Minister. Dumas said the use of migrant labour in T&T does not threaten T&T's development. "No country was developed on the scales and capacity of its population. Ask the Japanese, Germans, British, Romans and Persians; they all did it. "Migrant labour played a role in the development of a country. In the mix of talents internationally, you get your best by choosing from the world while taking care of your own," Dumas said. Dumas said T&T has been a magnet for labour for the rest of the Caribbean.
He said T&T has been identified as one of the faster developing countries in the Caribbean and the world. Referring to Chinese workers, Dumas said with the development of the construction industry, the Chinese' identities, skills, processes, social and commercial organisation have put them on the international market. Pointing to Trinidad nationals migrating, Dumas said that adds to T&T's development when Trinidadians gain employment internationally. "Just like when we go out there, it does not threaten our development. Our people learn new things and get opportunities and develop new skills. Even if they don't return, they send money for their loved ones here," Dumas said.
Responding to the comments that foreign companies carry their revenue back to their country when a job has been completed, Dumas said T&T would have made an investment because the foreign company would have constructed a building which would go toward creating revenue for T&T in the long run. He identified the Hyatt Regency Trinidad hotel as one such building. Regarding media attention drawn to the Chinese labourers' living conditions, Dumas said there is more to the comments than what was uttered in the public domain. "Some of what is happening is hate. We have to be careful," Dumas said.
Requirements for a work permit
According to the Ministry of National Security's Web site, some of the requirements for applying for a work permit include:
1. A medical certificate must be submitted for periods in excess of one year.
2. Application for work permits may be made on behalf of an individual by a company based in T&T wishing to employ such person or by an appointed company in T&T acting on behalf of a foreign company.
3. A work permit when issued is specific to a particular person for a specified period of time and for attachment to a particular company or institution.
4. Persons entering into T&T for the purpose of work/work-related activities may enter for such purposes without producing a work permit, provided the period of stay for the specific purpose is not more than 30 days, and this facility is only applicable once in any 12 months.
Chinese labourers hard at work at the construction site of the Performing Arts Centre, Princes Building Grounds, Port-of-Spain.