“Songshine was a kind of miracle. I was lucky enough to be part of making it happen.” — Gillian Moor
No court injunction can stop immigration workers from staying away from work until proper conditions are provided, says president of the Public Service Association (PSA) Watson Duke. Shortly after 7 am yesterday, staff at the Port-of-Spain passport office walked off the job, leaving scores of frustrated people stranded without passports. The situation was more the same in San Fernando, where over 100 customers were turned away. Only few emergency cases were dealt with. Customers were told the office had minimal staff and it was not known when operations would be back to normal. Speaking yesterday at a press conference at the PSA’s headquarters at Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain, Duke said “industrial action”, which the injunction sought to stop, did not include refusing to work under poor health and safety conditions.
Duke produced a report from the Occupational Health and Safety Authority (Osha), dated July 4, that identified health and safety concerns at the immigration building at 67 Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain (see sidebar). He also cited incidents—the explosion of an electrical panel in which a T&TEC foreman was badly burned, the collapse of a glass window from the second floor and health problems among staff—that suggested the building was unfit for work. He said: “We don’t really want this injunction to be discharged. It could remain because it does not affect us. We have never protested. “The injunction simply restrains us from taking or continuing to take industrial action within the meaning of the said act (Industrial Relations Act). “What does it mean to take industrial action within the act? “It means to take things like strikes, lockouts, sympathy strikes, sit-ins, go slow... this is what it means to take industrial action. We have never done that.”
In explaining the definition of “industrial action” in the IRA, Duke said it did not include “a failure to commence work or a refusal to continue work by reason of the fact that unusual circumstances have arisen which are hazardous or injurious to health or life. “We are clear. The workers left on their own accord because they are conscious. We are not afraid of any contempt of court,” he added. According to Section 15 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Duke added: “An employee may refuse to work or do particular work where he has reason to believe there is serious or imminent danger to himself or others, or unusual circumstances have arisen which are hazardous or injurious to his health or life. “There is no court in this land that can take away the right for us to protect our own life. “I ask the State to take it easy. The PSA is responsible for 120 essential services and I know they do not want to war with us, especially where our rights are concerned because we are not giving them any.”
Labour Minister Errol Mc Leod could not be reached yesterday as calls to his cellphone were left unanswered and messages left were not returned. Members of the public faced off with PSA president Watson Duke yesterday, accusing him and the immigration officers of breaking the law and holding the country to ransom. From 4 am, people lined the pavements outside the passport office on Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain, only to be told around 7 am that the office would be closed for the day. Just after 7 am, Duke arrived and was greeted with loud jeers from the public but asked the crowd not to hold the immigration workers responsible for the impasse. “They came to work because they want to work but this building compromises their safety, health and welfare. “The people to hold responsible is the Minister of National Security and those persons who are responsible for office accommodation,” he said.
Duke said the immigration workers surrendered their rights by agreeing to work for half-day but that was not enough. One person came to collect a passport for his wife, who had to travel to the UK for medical treatment. On the verge of tears, he said: “Since April 13, something that supposed to take two or three weeks and up to now she can’t get a passport to travel to seek medical attention. It is ridiculous and I smelling death. “Duke and them fellas inside there holding we to ransom.”
One woman said she had to pay $11,000 to change her travel plans because she could not get her grandson’s passport on time. “We are supposed to travel to London on June 30. I paid to get the passport expedited and up to now I haven’t gotten it. On Friday they told me it was printed but it had not come down yet,” she said. Another woman, who works and lives in the US, said she could lose her job. “I applied for this passport in New York since February and they said I have to come here to get it. “I have to start to work Friday and now I have to make up some excuse to tell my boss, otherwise I’ll end up homeless. “I living New York and this is the first time I came back in 14 years and I’m not coming back again because of things like this,” she said. —With reporting by Kevon Felmine
Govt team meets on issues
An interim committee, set up to address issues raised by Immigration Division staff, is expected to hold its first meeting today, National Security Minister Gary Griffith said yesterday.
While explaining the rationale for the Government’s latest attempt to avert the crisis caused by almost seven weeks of action by staff over health and safety concerns, Griffith said: “There is a dire need more than ever for both parties to come to a sound resolution in the interest of citizens who are being heavily inconvenienced.” Griffith said the decision to form the committee came after a meeting with Public Services Association (PSA) officials, immigration workers and Housing and Urban Development Minister Dr. Roodal Moonilal at the Office of the Prime Minister, St Clair, yesterday. “Moonilal, in his contribution, said his ministry is poised to assist in swiftly remedying the health and safety issues of workers to ensure that business can return to normal for all as soon as possible,” the release said.
What’s wrong at the passport office
The findings of the Osha report, dated July 4 and based on an inspection of 67 Frederick Street, included:
• The building satisfied six out of 37 health and safety parameters.
• No emergency plan based on the most recent risk assessment.
• No valid fire certificate from the Fire Authority.
• Entire staircase was too narrow.
• Hanging wires throughout the building.
• All floors overcrowded with staff and storage boxes.
• Insufficient water storage.
• Inadequate ventilation.
• Non-functional emergency lighting.
History of the dispute
The action by the immigration workers started on May 14 as part of a series of PSA-led protests against poor health and safety working conditions in the public service. On Thursday, Minister of Labour Errol Mc Leod got an injunction from the Industrial Court which prevented workers of the Immigration Division from taking further industrial action. The court order said: “The public officers are hereby restrained from taking and/or continuing to take such industrial action within the meaning and provisions of the Industrial Relations Act until further order.”