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More burden for taxpayers

Tuesday, January 10, 2017
Workers at Petrotrin’s Pointe-a-Pierre refinery walk out of the plant yesterday morning in preparation for strike action which was subsequently averted following successful conciliation talks. PHOTO: RISHI RAGOONATH

In normal circumstances we would be celebrating the fact that the country averted a potentially crippling Petrotrin strike. Sadly, there’s little or nothing normal about Petrotrin and little or nothing to celebrate about the agreement reached by the Government, the company’s management and the OWTU.

There was a palpable sense that most citizens were keen to see a new kind of outcome to this dispute. With Trinidad and Tobago’s coffers empty due to low oil and gas prices, falling production and a torrid 2016 as far as economic performance is concerned, there was hope that the Government, the OWTU and Petrotrin’s senior management were ready to put the national interest first instead of a quick fix at the taxpayer’s expense. What we are left with is a palpable sense of disappointment.

As we argued previously, this trade dispute meant a lot more than a pay increase for Petrotrin’s workers and its impact on the company’s current losses and heavy debt levels. It was about the expectation that the Government would show the right leadership at the right time, determined not to kick the confrontation to the long grass and to set a new and mature approach to how it handles the losses and excesses of our state-owned enterprises.

It was also about the OWTU—as the most powerful union in the country—shedding its image as the bully boys of trade unionism and opting for a lesson in civic display, showing how unions can also put the nation first, also for the benefit of their current and future members. And it was also about Petrotrin’s management demonstrating a renewed rigour and determination to run the company properly and with the interests of all, not just its own, at heart.

No doubt those who worked on this deal will claim that it avoided a strike that no one wanted or could afford in the first place. They can also claim that the negotiations are far from over, as the issue of back pay still depends on productivity and performance gains yet to be agreed.

But let’s not beat about the bush: when Petrotrin and its masters give an immediate five per cent pay rise just hours into a strike, there is little expectation that a measured and thoughtful deal will come out of the next round of conciliation talks at the Industrial Court. In fact, the OWTU’s boss has already signalled that he doesn’t expect to leave the talks without more.

The deal also works as a signal to unions representing other state-owned enterprise workers and public sector employees that, at least for them, the good old times of generous pay rises are here to stay, irrespective of how big is the size of the hole in the Government’s accounts, how challenging conditions will continue to be in the energy sector and how desperately the country needs a new way of doing things if we are to have a truly diversified and modern economy.

Sadly, though, it also works as a signal to the rest of the world that we are still a long way away from being a serious player in the world economy by failing to adopt good governance standards, sensible public sector performance-related pay and efficient management practices at our state enterprises.


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