My son Kyle’s first word was “Car”. His second word was “Bang”. So I’m hoping this isn’t a harbinger of things to come.
The Grassroots Foundation has collected over 2,000 signatures from workers in the Unemployment Relief Programme (URP) and the Community-Based Environmental Protection and Enhancement Programme (CEPEP), for presentation to Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar in support of a call for salary increases.
Revealing the foundation’s plan to launch a “Bugle Call” shortly as it moves from community to community to meet with residents on this and other issues, chairman David John said his group also intends to ensure the electorate is fully aware of the impact that constitutional reform will have on the population. Addressing reporters during a briefing at Raphael’s Plaza, Arouca, on Thursday, John spoke of the disparity in salaries for the current group of URP and CEPEP workers, compared to 24 years ago.
He explained that in 1990, labourers under the Labour Intensive Development Programme (LIDP) received $766.70 fortnightly, when the oil price stood at $13 per barrel. “The economy was in total shambles then,” John said, adding that former prime minister Patrick Manning changed the name to URP in 1992 and cut salaries by $200, bringing it down to $565 a fortnight. In 1993, when the price of oil increased to $160 per barrel, salaries were not increased.
Although the People’s Partnership Government raised salaries to $690 a fortnight in 2012, John said this was still not enough. “The economy is very healthy and these workers are still working for less money than they were receiving 24 years ago.” Claiming that this “could never be right,” John said the foundation chose to represent these workers because they were not unionised, nor did they have any organisation to clearly articulate on their behalf.
Proposal for Howai soon
John said after a meeting with hundreds of workers two weeks ago, a motion will be presented to Persad-Bissessar and Finance Minister Larry Howai in time for the 2015 budget, outlining the proposed salary increases.
Also calling for the restructuring of the URP programme, John referred to the current system as a “sophisticated dole” which mimicked the European model where people are paid whilst sleeping at home. Admitting he was “aware that this is happening here and now,” John said changes must be made to the current structure to ensure transparency and accountability.
“Apart from the salary increases, we believe the URP programme has to be restructured to increase productivity, because if you ask for money you must produce in return and that is what the Grassroots Foundation is asking for,” he said. Pointing out that it was LIDT workers who were responsible for constructing all the Priority Bus Route malls, which were still standing 24 years later, John said, “It is not that people cannot produce, they must be given incentives to produce.”
Holding a copy of a newspaper story in which Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley claimed the Government was spending too much money on URP and CEPEP programmes, John said private-sector organisations were also calling for Government to cut back on funding for social programmes and to increase funding being spent on national security measures.
“I find that totally ridiculous, because if you cut back on funding for social programmes you will really have to pump more money into national security, because crime will go up,” he said.
The foundation’s field officer Quessa Thomas said with no existing facilities for URP and CEPEP workers, it was difficult for them to perform at their maximum potential. She too called for improved working conditions for all workers, saying they were not poor, but rather underprivileged. Promising that production would increase if they were given proper working conditions and salaries, Thomas said it was this same group of people on the ground who were “doing the hardest work.”
Confident that Persad-Bissessar would help, Thomas said the foundation was now the voice for the people who previously felt unrepresented and sidelined. On another note, John said the foundation was in agreement with Government on the issue of constitutional reform.
Denying any political affiliation, he said the foundation intends to begin weekly meetings soon, as it seeks to “explain to the people the concept of constitutional reform and its relevance in layman’s terms and language so everybody in society can understand what is on the table as far as the Government is concerned.” The first meeting will take place in Sangre Grande, with subsequent meetings to be held in communities along the East-West Corridor.
CEPEP boss supports call
Contacted on the issue, CEPEP chairman Adesh Deonarine said the organisation had requested an increase in the budgetary allocation for the 2014/2015 fiscal year. “We have always respected the rights of workers and we are always clamouring for better conditions and improved salaries for them.”
Revealing that it had received just over $400 million in the 2013/2014 budget—a huge shortfall from the $720 million which had been requested—Deonarine said his organisation was not responsible for salary increases. Adding that it continued to operate on subventions from the Finance Ministry, Deonarine said the CEPEP Company Ltd had submitted a document to Housing and Development Minister Dr Roodal Moonilal outlining its requests for the year ahead.
“We appreciate the hard work done by these employees in protecting and maintaining the environment,” he said.