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'It's a Work in Progress'
Many of the complaints coming into the Equal Opportunity Commission arise from a lack of communication between the complainants and the respondents. And according to the head of the Commission’s legal department, Haran Ramkaransingh, the two major ethnic groups submit an equal number of complaints, not all of them relating to perceived racial discrimination. One person claimed he was discriminated against because he was unable to buy a ticket to a Carnival fete.
Q: Mr Ramkaransingh, apart from the current public education campaign, the EOC appears to be doing nothing at this time. What’s going on here?
A: (At his Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain, office, Thursday morning) We’re depending on members of the public to bring complaints to us, as our main purpose is to receive, investigate and conciliate allegations of discrimination. The enabling EOC legislation was passed in 2000 and the commission was established some seven years later.
The EOC Act deals with certain types of discrimination such as in employment, education, the provision of goods and services and the provision of accommodation.
So far, has there been a rash of complaints to the commission?
We have received a number of complaints, which have increased since the current public education campaign.
What are the major allegations of discrimination?
Most of them have been in the area of employment.
Many of them do not necessarily point to status, because people may feel discriminated against but many times they are unable to say why.
These employment-related complaints, are they dealing with race, residential status or...?
We have gotten a few complaints from people who claim they were discriminated against because of where they lived, because of their ethnicity, because of their religion. But I cannot go into the actual details...
I know, but can you give us a general idea of the employment-related complaints?
Well, for example we received a complaint from someone who felt he was fired because he was a Seventh-Day Adventist and who couldn’t attend to a work-related matter on a Saturday.
In a matter like that, what’s the commission’s method of approach?
We would ascertain if it falls within our remit and if there isn’t sufficient information we would ask the complainant to come in and give us more information, documents. We would write the respondent and ask them to give us certain information within a specified time. Our remit is to investigate and as far as possible to conciliate. We are not able to make findings of facts or make awards for compensation and that sort of thing.
So what is the ultimate relief the commission can give to a complainant?
There are two institutions created by the act: the Commission, and the tribunal, which actually functions as a court of law. They can give you relief in the form of declarations, that the respondent pays you compensation, as the case may be. We are only empowered to investigate by bringing the parties to a table, speak to them, point out the pros and the cons...
What percentage of these cases has the commission been able to settle so far?
It is a high rate, but I cannot give an off-hand number at this time, because, remember, not every matter will end up in conciliation and you have to have a genuine case to go forward.
Sometimes a party may have an unreasonable expectation...they may want an unreasonable sum of money and many times the respondent will offer the complainant a financial settlement but who would feel they want more. It is not within our remit to offer more than what the respondent is willing to offer.
In this type of case the matter will be referred to the tribunal?
Yes... And their jurisdiction is unlimited. But they will be guided by precedents set by the High Court or the Industrial Court.
At this time how many matters is the EOC investigating?
We have close to 140 matters under active investigation.
Some people are saying the EOC is a waste of time. From your vantage point, how credible is that assertion?
I think it has to do with the expectations that people have. I mean, some of them feel that by coming to the commission every problem will be solved, and sometimes when we look at a matter we may find that it is not a genuine grievance. For example, a person came to us saying they couldn’t get a ticket to a Carnival fete.
Can you give a rough estimate of what one might deem frivolous complaints reaching the commission, like that Carnival fete issue?
Well, more or less you could say one quarter of the complaints. But at the same time we do try our best to investigate every complaint, so that sometimes, after investigating, you may realise that the complaint was not really frivolous, like in the instance of the guy who complained about the Carnival fete ticket.
If the person was denied a ticket because the seller of the ticket felt that they don’t want a person of that ethnicity in their fete, or that they don’t want a person coming from a certain geographical district, then that would be a genuine complaint. So even there we have to do a proper investigation.
Mr Ramkaransingh, again, based on the complaints the commission has been receiving, can you conclude or debunk the perception that there is a racial problem in T&T? And how many of the 140 under active consideration are racially related?
Well, there I don’t have the statistics off-hand. But out of that there is a number of complaints based on perceived racial discrimination and sometimes a person may feel that he or she is being discriminated against because of their ethnicity or religion.
But when you ask the respondent for their side they are able to point to staff reports, to warning letters and other matters relating to the employee’s on-the-job performance. Sometimes you also have to ascertain if these reports were contrived.
Often the commission cannot resolve these complaints, and as I said, they would be referred to the tribunal.
Based on these complaints, Mr Ramkaransingh, can you say whether this perception is well founded?
Every report is different and there are genuine cases out there. A person may be working in an environment where the management is predominantly of one ethnic group or social group, and may feel excluded. It may not necessarily be racial discrimination, as opposed to tribal inclusion and exclusion. It could be that management feel they could communicate with one group rather than the group which the complainant comes from.
What sort of complaints do you receive from the public sector...if any at all?
Yes. By and large, in terms of employment, most of our complaints come from the public sector, meaning employees from the Public Service and state-owned enterprises.
Many times they do no not claim they are being victimised because of their ethnicity, but it has to do with employment relations which are caused mainly due to lack of proper communication between the employees and their managers, so that many of the complaints relate to being transferred from one department to another without being told why. Or someone was promoted ahead of them and they were not told why.
What are some of the operating problems at the EOC, as I am sure not everything is completely satisfactory?
As with every government department, a lack of adequate staffing. You always do not have the amount of staff you really need to do the job. So that we have embarked on our current educational programme to make the public more aware that there is an avenue for redress at the EOC, and we also intend to deal with our staffing situation in the near future. It’s a work in progress.
But we have the staff where we can manage our case loads if we want to grow the organisation...I do not think we have a serious staff problem at this time, but we do need that extra staff to take our operations to the next level.
Does the commission have a breakdown on the number of complaints received on the basis of their ethnicity?
Strange enough, between the two major ethnic groups it has been fairly even.
So would you say, based on the complaints the commission has received to date, that this discussion on perceived racial discrimination in the country is unnecessary?
It is necessary, given that we live in a multi-ethnic society, and as I said, people of different groups may feel excluded for whatever reason, because there isn’t this dialogue between the groups.
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