Over the course of last weekend, many people woke up unable to access the Internet and make phone calls because thieves stole hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fibre optic cables from a Telecommunications Services (TSTT) installation in San Fernando.
However, police believe the thieves made a mistake, as they were indeed looking for copper wires.
Either way, it cost the company potentially millions of dollars.
Incidents such as these have placed renewed focus on the scrap iron business, as the stolen wires are often sold to scrap deals who export them out of the country.
President of the Scrap Iron Dealers Association Allan Ferguson explained the situation was akin to a typical market as it had similar supply and demand factors.
“It’s like any other business (where) you are buying and selling. If you buy for $100 and you sell for $200 you make a profit in just like any other business. Because we buy and we will buy from the guys who go out with the vans, we call them the collectors. The collectors, they will go also to purchase from people sometimes they get free. Sometimes they make money or we will make money because we buy from them and we sell. We are the ones that export it out of Trinidad,” Ferguson told the Business Guardian.
The common refrain “Buying Scrap Iron, Old Battery Buying” has become one of T&T’s national memes, but for many looking to earn an extra dollar amid a difficult period of food inflation, it is a signal to opportunity.
Unfortunately, some are trying to seize the moment through illegal methods, Ferguson explained.
He noted that the theft of copper wires are not solely common to T&T.
“What you see taking place with the copper is because the copper price went right up. And then what would have taken place with that also, is that Trinidad also copying what is taking place outside of Trinidad and if you see a lot of countries, all parts of the world because of the copper price a lot of stealing taking place because of the copper price,” he said.
The copper price has skyrocketed as it is in high demand in emerging economies like China and India which require copper for their infrastructure.
The rampant act of stealing has not only affected TSTT but also the T&T Electricity Commission and even Water and Sewerage Authority pipelines as well leading to power outages and water shortages in some areas as well.
It has also occasionally lead to the injury or death of thieves who touch the wrong lines and get electrocuted.
Ferguson said this situation had been created by the establishment of yards owned by foreign owners, who were less familiar with the local infrastructure of the utilities.
He noted that typically scrap yards would buy steel products based on specific heavy melting steel designations (HMS 1 and HMS 2) as well as mixed or light materials. He said currently the introduction of these yards had created a free for all where collectors were less prudent about what they were picking up.
“That is why I’m so disappointed with people who purchase material that you’re not supposed to purchase. And we have that problem not because of Trinidadians alone. We have that problem because of foreigners coming in and opening up yards and don’t know the difference between a manhole cover or a WASA pipe or a TSTT or whatever it is. And that’s a big problem for us in the industry,” he said.
Allan Ferguson, president, Scrap Iron Dealers Association
“A lot of people, even scrap dealers, take a lot of the opportunities to go and steal the wire and bring it to some of the yards that purchase it. That now will create a monster because a lot of people know we’ll see that taking place and will want to take part in it. Because you know Trinidad is a lawless country so that’s the situation with that,” he said,
“We have some Trinidadians who also break the law but we have a major problem is with the foreign buyers who came into Trinidad to purchase our material. And then because of their long stay, they stay, they get in contact with certain individuals and now they opening up the yards and now when they open up they yards and they have their own people that they bring into supervise. They don’t know the difference between WASA pipe or a manhole cover. That is the creating some more problems. It might not be all the problems but creating some of the problems.”
The situation had become so problematic that in early July during a post-Cabinet press briefing Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley suggested the government would consider shutting down the Scrap Iron business entirely.
Ferguson did not agree with a full shutdown of the industry and had instead called for a ban on the sale of copper.
He, however, believed his association did have the tools to help the beleaguered utilities find a solution as a similar situation had emerged in the late 2000s to the early 2010s when copper prices had sparked a similar spate of thefts.
“Around that time, also the price of Copper went up and you find it a lot of TSTT wires people were pulling down also. But at around that time. We had worked with TSTT to stop this theft from taking place at that time they listen to us and we work with them and the stealing stop taking place immediately around this time they didn’t want to work with us so that’s why you see this monster was created because TSTT didn’t listen to us. And people continue stealing their wires,” he said.
The copper theft situation is not the only crisis the industry is facing. Ferguson also explained the export market could crash due to the plummeting price of steel worldwide.
“The whole thing about it is the whole industry worldwide is in a terrible state because the price of steel which went right down and it’s holding by a string right now. It could crash immediately. Anytime you see this week if steel goes down again. We will be out of business for a little while because of the price, we wouldn’t be able to ship anything because of how low the price is and even today the price keeps going down. We could be out of business for a little while,” he said.
Ferguson and his association hosted a symposium on Wednesday to further educate the public on the industry. Ferguson told the Business Guardian that he planned to raise the awareness and the standing of the scrap industry to make more people aware of its potential as a proper business.
He is hopeful that enough dialogue is created to not only stop millions of dollars in losses and hours of lost productivity can be abated through discussion with his team.