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Duke facing jail
Public Services Association (PSA) president Watson Duke now faces the prospect of being jailed for contempt over his alleged breach of an injunction preventing Immigration Division staff from continuing to withhold their services owing to health and safety issues. Attorneys for Labour and Small and Micro Enterprise Development Minister Errol Mc Leod yesterday filed contempt proceedings in the Industrial Court against Duke and one of the protesting immigration officers, Purdy Babwah.
Both men are alleged to have breached the injunction which was granted by five judges at an emergency sitting of the court last Thursday. A hearing has been scheduled for 11 am today at the St Vincent Street, Port-of-Spain, courthouse. Today’s hearing will be the first time Duke and his members will address the court on the issue as the ex-parte injunction was granted last week in the absence of submissions from the union. The T&T Guardian understands that the decision to file the proceeding was taken during yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, where Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, SC, advised his colleagues that the workers’ continued action was in “open and flagrant violation” of the injunction and would serve to undermine the rule of law.
Mc Leod is acting Prime Minister in the absence of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who is in Brazil for the World Cup final. The latest action comes after a defiant Duke said the injunction did not apply to his members because their action did not constitute industrial action under the Industrial Relations Act. According to the court documents obtained by the T&T Guardian, Mc Leod is asking the court to commit both Duke and Babwah to prison for an undefined period. He is alleging that Duke breached the injunction by instructing and encouraging staff to “sign in and leave their jobs without working by telling them that the office is shut down.” Babwah was chosen by Mc Leod to represent all her colleagues who followed Duke’s advice by refusing to work on Monday and Tuesday.
In a witness statement attached to the contempt proceedings, acting Chief Immigration Officer Gerry Downes said operations at all the offices under his control returned to normal last Friday following the injunction. Downes also said staff from sub-offices in Sangre Grande, Point Fortin and Chaguanas were brought into Port-of-Spain over the weekend to assist in clearing the backlog of passport applications, which plagued the department since the workers’ action began almost two months ago.
He refered to a PSA meeting at the Bureau of Standards in Trincity on Sunday at which he claimed Duke informed workers to cite a breach under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in the attendance register before leaving for the day. The senior public servant said on Monday, immigration officers and business operation assistants, who are responsible for the issuing of passports at the department’s Port-of-Spain and San Fernando offices, resumed action by following Duke’s advice. He said the action continued on Tuesday, albeit with less staff participating. “This has again effectively crippled the passport section,” Downes said.
Attached to the contempt proceedings are copies of the attendance registers at both offices showing the names of workers the government alleges are in breach of the injunction. The action continued despite a meeting on Tuesday in which National Security Minister Gary Griffith and Urban Development Corporation of T&T (Udecott) chair Jearlean John agreed to address the issues after a failing OSHA inspection certificate for the department’s Port-of-Spain office was presented by the union. Also attached to the documents filed by Mc Leod’s attorneys is a statement from Gaekwad Ramoutar, chief inspector of the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, whose organisation prepared the certificate. While Ramoutar acknowledged the issues raised over the building, he said he believed “there is no serious and imminent danger to persons who may occupy it.” Downes said since then meetings have been held with the building’s owner, who agreed to and has since begun to rectify problems, which include cleaning and servicing air condition units, updating fire extinguishers and installing emergency lighting and smoke detectors. Mc Leod is being represented by Russell Martineau, SC, and attorney Derek Ali.