Sitting under a tree in Woodford Square, Port-of-Spain, secretary of Fisherman and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) Gary Aboud made a tearful plea to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to mediate with
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Duke puts off $10,000 vacation
Watson Duke, president of the Public Services Association, claims he has lost more than $10,000 due to the ongoing industrial dispute with employees at the Immigration Division and the Government. Duke said he had bought his ticket three months ago to go abroad on vacation but because of the protest action, he decided to stay in T&T and show solidarity with the workers.
The PSA chief argued that he and the affected members of his union share the concerns of the public over the hardships being experienced, but said he was fighting a national issue. Although he would like the Government to withdraw the injunction against the union, Duke said he was not afraid of the consequences if the struggle should escalate.
Q: In the midst of all this heat around you, how are you this morning?
A: (Sitting in his black swivel chair at the Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain, head office of the Public Services Association on Thursday morning after ending a meeting with about 30 influential Immigration Division employees) This morning I regard it as a make or a break morning, a morning when I addressed the employees regarding the state of their buildings in an attempt to bring some resolution to the health and safety concerns, at the same time return some normalcy to the services that they provide.
Before going further on that point, what’s the real reason for this fallout between you and the PP administration where you were virtually considered the Government’s blue-eyed labour leader?
There is no fallout at all, neither are we friends at the same time. I have a job to do.
Isn’t that a paradox?
It may be, but it is the truth. Under the PSA constitution our second objective is to have a cordial relationship with the Government to settle disputes in an amicable way insofar as it is reasonably practicable.
With that objective, how come this situation has been allowed to reach this crucial level...both sides blaming each other?
The health and safety issue is one that we started last year October. We started with other government departments where we took closure action because of risks they posed to employees.
Mr Duke, is it your opinion that industrial action taken by trade unions should in any way impact negatively on citizens not associated with the actual dispute?
(Contemplating briefly) Let me answer the question this way...industrial action is a term used by our colonial masters.
(Not giving way) I will call it affirmative action...
Mr Watson…? (Again refusing to give way)
A trade union takes affirmative action but the colonial masters called it industrial action.
Mr Watson, let’s not engage in semantics and...
(Interrupting) Semantics...I call it realism. We don’t engage in industrial action.
Granted your membership may choose to take affirmative action or industrial action, why should the public be adversely affected for a wrong which might be committed by an employer?
First of all, the actions of Immigration staff are not aimed at the man-in-the street, and we sympathise with them.
What if I tell you I do not believe that. People are literally bawling down the place after losing their money and other resulting difficulties in not obtaining a passport. Aren’t you taking advantage of affected citizens?
(Leaning forward to emphasise his point) Personally, I am one of those people.
You are one of them?
I paid for my vacation, and I have lost in excess of $10,000, I have lost that.
You lost that?
Yes, I bought my ticket three months ago.
Do you have your passport?
Because of the action, I decide to show solidarity. I will not leave while other folks...
(Interrupting again while speaking loudly over Raphael’s voice) I decided to vacate that...
You decided to vacate your vacation, but you know very well that this is a place of “contacts”...and which Immigration worker would refuse to give the Duke of Abercromby, the president of the PSA, a passport?
(Ignoring the question and continuing) I have chosen to pay the penance so I can feel how they feel. So when people say they are feeling the pressure, I can say I am feeling too, brother. I have taken the choice to suffer with them (with a straight face).
Isn’t that a ruse to gain the sympathy from the public who are being affected?
My members are quite concerned about how people are being affected (voice lowered)...That is why we are trying to settle this issue, today. Thursday, July 10.
I might be right, I might be wrong, but you instructed your members to work half day. How come the building could be sick half day and healthy the other half? Do you find that making sense?
Well, it would only make sense if you are one of the people who assist within the half day. If you assist within the half day, it would make a lot of sense. So I don’t know if you want us not to assist anybody. That is a very good idea (smirking).
I cannot understand that position...clarify. Aren’t you putting your members at risk even if they enter the same building for just one hour?
I agree with you, but whenever my members go to work half day they understand the risk involved and they are saying, “I am going to bite this bullet for T&T. I am going to assist some people today. I am going to surrender my rights today.”
Didn’t you say that you are not going to surrender the workers’ rights until the Government withdraws the injunction?
We are not bothered by the injunction so far as it does not interfere with our rights to refuse work under the provisions of Osha, but we are bothered by the fact that it represents something.
An attempt by the State to protect the rights of all its citizens?
They say that, but this is not a duty to protect, this is a duty to denigrate...to put workers in their place and say to them, “Look, you go back and work there. Sick what? Go and work!” (raised voice).
Mr Duke, you are saying the State should sit back and allow its citizen to be deprived of their rights as provided under the Constitution? You are not concerned about that?
Of course, I am very much concerned.
So why are you carrying out this kind of action?
Are you aware that based on the Osha it was found that the building was poorly ventilated, electrical wirings hanging, electrical wirings mixing with water, no fire escape on the ground floor, that the entire building is structurally unsound, there is a leaking roof which covers a car park, the access and egress are greatly restricted because it is being used as a place for storage…and so on? We have been simply raising the red flag, saying, “Management, look, treat with this.” But the management is saying “frivolous concerns.”
Mr President, what is the real reasons for your battle with the Government and by the way, I noticed of late you have a striking resemblance to the great labour leader Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler with your attire, and all you are missing is a hat...
(Solemnly bows his head and clasps his palms) Well, I must say it is an honour to be linked to a great labour leader as Butler, who fought against colonial dominance, and if God has chosen to raise me up as a reminder of what took place…
Did God raise you up to suffer people who did your union absolutely nothing at all?
(Grinning) It is amazing, you know, that you would link suffering of people with the trade union...a trade union is about liberating the workers.
What we are trying to do is to create a better working environment for our members, and if we have that kind of environment we are going to boost productivity.
Is the PSA in any negotiations with the State?
None whatsoever? So nobody can say that this action is being prompted by stalled negotiations?
There was talk of negotiations, but those negotiations are going well.
But didn’t you just tell me that no negotiation was taking place?
(A wrinkled forehead) Mr Raphael, negotiations could mean a lot of things. Right now, we are negotiating an interview right here (a hearty laugh), everything in life is a negotiation. You driving, you have to negotiate a turn. You walking, you have to negotiate where you are going to pass. We are in some level of negotiations, but those negotiations are not problematic.
Mr Watson, when you addressed your workers on the Brian Lara Promenade last Wednesday, you boasted that “We in charge,” “I rule this town,” (head bowed again and a heavy chuckle) “They cannot touch me,” “We are the Government,” “The Government is on contract,” (laughs) but you just boiled down like bhaji asking now that the injunction be lifted?
No. No. That was a liberating speech...we are the civil service, we are the backs upon which they ride. We are their hands, their mouth, we are their feet…
Do you have to use that kind of loose language like “backs upon which they ride”…is that parliamentary?
(Laughing again) I hear you with that.
Finally, Mr Watson, the Labour Minister, acting Prime Minister Errol Mc Leod, warned that his patience was running out. Are you afraid of the consequences if this dispute is not speedily resolved?
As the president of the PSA, I am not. This is a human rights issue, no less than when some famous world leaders conducted national struggles, and this is a national struggle.