Lead Editor, Investigative Desk
Forty-six employees of Venture Credit Union (VCU) have petitioned for the removal of their CEO Roxanne Solomon since June this year citing a loss of confidence in her ability to do the job. This was revealed in documents obtained by the Sunday Guardian during an ongoing investigation into the operations at Venture Credit Union. That is more than half of the credit union’s 69 employees in the bargaining unit, which does not include managers.
The credit union has 119 employees some of whom are not unionised. Employees from the San Fernando, Arouca, and Couva branches signed the petition after a letter was sent to VCU’s board and supervisory committee, the branch executive team, as well as Banking Insurance and General Workers Union (BIGWU) 2nd Vice President Jason Brown, outlining why they had lost faith in the CEO.
The points of contention included: low staff morale due to unrealistic and achievable targets; the society’s productivity and profitability have been declining under the stewardship of the CEO; micromanaging of staff managers to the extent that the lines of authority and responsibility have been blurred resulting in staff being demoralised and frustrated; spending the society’s monies on consultants to give the same advice/solutions already proffered by staff, deemed to be redundant and a wasteful use of the society’s monies.
Other points raised in the petition were: Abuse of power in the application of policies re: requesting sick leave; amending policies without Board approval; the illegal lockout of staff on June 21, 2022, (Industrial Relations offence); Breach of Venture’s policies re Government policy (change of the Performance Appraisal Process); Non-payment of bonus to staff qualified for same (filed as a grievance); Targeting and frustrating employees by relocating them under the guise of training without a training plan (an act of victimisation tantamount to constructive dismissal); and Berating staff in front of other employees (lack of respect and professional conduct).
They also claimed: Breach of the Industrial Relations Act Section 40 re negotiating in bad faith (an Industrial Relations offence) and breach of the Collective Agreement re Article 6 Hours of Work, Article 7 Overtime, Article 9 Pay, Article 15 Sick Leave, Recent negative media publicity re Staff lockout, Foster Cummings, etc.
Following correspondence between VCU President Hayden Ferreria, Jefferson Bhowram, the Branch Secretary of VCU and BIGWU, and VCU Board’s Assistant Secretary Andre Edwards within the last few months and up to September 16, Guardian Media understands, based on documents forwarded late Friday evening, that VCU’s Supervisory Committee wrote to Solomon and the VCU Board last Tuesday indicating that they had unanimously agreed to call a Special General Meeting to address the pertinent matters.
The Supervisory Committee wrote to a representative of the Commissioner of Co-operative and is expected to meet tomorrow to finalise the decision of the meeting since they claim the VCU Board was in breach of the bye-laws and did not act on the request of the members.
VCU President responds
On July 8, this year, VCU President Ferreria responded to the petitions in a letter to Bhowram, the Branch Secretary of VCU and BIGWU, stating, “The majority of these concerns appear to be employee-related and thus can be classified as grievances.” As a result, he referred “to the previous Collective Agreement, which provides for the amicable resolution of such issues”.
Ferreria quoted Under article 2(b)–Definition of an Agreement which stated, ‘”The term “grievance” shall refer to and mean any difference of optimism and position between Venture and any employee of the union, relative to any matter adversely affecting the conditions of the employee(s) in the Bargaining Unit.”
The president also directed the Branch Executive Team to Article 21 of Grievance Procedure which advised on the step-by-step process to be adopted by an employee when aggrieved.
First, “an employee who desires to raise a grievance in which they are personally concerned must first speak with their shop steward and discuss the matter with the manager of Venture”. Failing a settlement in the first step, he stated, “they can then refer the matter to the Executive of Venture through the manager in writing to the union”. If there is still no resolution, “the third step under Article 21 would be for the matter to be referred to the Ministry of Labour, according to the Industrial Relations Act, 1971 as amended”.
Ferreira urged that the grievances be addressed in the petition through the Grievance Procedure, “as it would be irresponsible for the Board to circumvent a process consented to between the union and the Society”.
In a response to a complaint about an illegal lockout of staff on June 21, 2022, Ferreira stated, “We are aware that an Industrial Relations Offence has been filed by the union and is currently engaging the attention of the Industrial Court. Venture remains open to discussing this matter, as suggested by the court, and has appointed the appropriate representatives to oversee this matter. Other matters identified will be handled in a more open forum with our staff.”
‘Wilful blindness by the Board’
Meanwhile, Bhowram, in a detailed letter to Ferreira, stated that the “Branch Executive was now of the view that trust and confidence placed in the President of the Board and by extension the Board of Directors have been eroded by what can only be defined as wilful blindness”. Wilful blindness is a deliberate failure to make a reasonable inquiry of wrongdoing despite suspicion or awareness of the high probability of its existence, according to Merriam-Webster.com Legal Dictionary.
Bhowram said they were convinced that Ferreria’s correspondence was “a deliberate attempt to hoodwink the petitioners of this action in addressing the substantive matter re: Removal of the current CEO”. Bhowram found it “disconcerting that the entirety of Ferreira’s response was centred on the existing Collective Agreement and NOT (sic) on the substantive points of contention”, raised in the signed petition.
He explained to Ferreira that the concerns raised by the staff were a call for action. “This can ONLY (sic) be interpreted as a dereliction of duty and contemptuous to staff members who affixed their signatures in requesting your intervention.”
Under the Governance Policy: Board of Directors created on January 10, 2016, and reviewed on May 31, 2017, according to Bhowram: “The Board recognises that it has a fiduciary obligation and duty of care to act for the benefit of the collective interest of membership as a whole. To maintain public confidence in VCU, the Board recognises the need to adhere to best practices in corporate governance.”
Ferreira and the Board were also asked to “disabuse” their minds that the petition was an attempt to treat staff grievances.
Bhowram also reminded Ferreira and the Board of the actions of the CEO as it pertained to the illegal lockout of staff on June 21, 2002, indicating apart from it being an Industrial Relations offence it was also a criminal offence.
He quoted from the Governance Policy: Board of Directors under the heading: Relationship with the CEO and Executive Limitations stated: “The CEO shall not cause or allow in the credit union any practice, activity, decision or circumstance, which in the Board’s determination is: Unethical, Unlawful, Imprudent, In violation of any Executive Limitation policies, In violation of commonly accepted professional ethics, In violation of organisational values as set out in the Vision and Mission Statements and In violation of any Board policies.”
Bhowram indicated that the president’s correspondence “brings us no relief nor brings us any closer to a resumption of a harmonious relationship”.
After more than a month and no resolution to the impasse between the employees/union and the Board of Directors at VCU, the Board’s Assistant Secretary Edwards finally wrote to Bhowram on September 16 requesting a meeting with the petitioners last Wednesday in the hope of understanding their concerns raised in the petition sent in June.
But Bhowram refused the Board’s offer to meet. Bhowram questioned why the Board only wanted to meet now when the staff petition had been sent months ago. He said it “can only be described as dereliction of duty and shows the lack of importance as it pertains to staff concerns and finding a way forward”.
Bhowram insisted that they wanted the CEO removed with immediate effect as “things have become progressively worse and staff continues to suffer”.
He also called for the following to be addressed: settlement of negotiations for the period 2020-2022 of 17 per cent and back pay for the non-negotiated period of $20K per employee within the bargaining unit and settlement of all outstanding grievances.
‘Acts of perceived victimisation and intimidation’
Jason Browne, BIGWU Second Vice President, who received correspondence on the matter since June said, “It is very unfortunate that Roxanne Solomon would have chosen to abuse her authority as the CEO of this organisation to stall the negotiations and in some cases deliberately misrepresent the positions of the union to the staff in an effort to cause division and confusion.
“The union was compelled to return and retrieve the audio recordings to substantiate its claims and provide evidence that Mrs Solomon was deliberately stalling the negotiations. It is the union’s position therefore that Mrs Solomon is disingenuous when it comes to good faith collective bargaining as prescribed by Section 40 of the Industrial Relations Act.”
Brown further claimed, “Rather than correct her behaviour, Mrs Solomon further descended into acts of perceived victimisation and intimidation in an effort to weaken the branch executive and the many members of staff who support the union.”
These revelations come after at least two recent Guardian Media articles in which several employees of Venture Credit Union Cooperative Society Limited expressed concern about some of the credit union’s financial transactions.
They indicated there are at least two companies–whose owners are related to two senior executives at Venture Credit Union–that were allegedly paid to provide services.
The provision of these services, they alleged, represented a conflict of interest.
The sources allege that the sister of VCU president Hayden Ferreira, Janice Ferreira, received numerous payments for the provision of fruit baskets and flowers, while they also allege that a company belonging to the son of Chief Executive Officer Roxanne Solomon, PrintsTT, received preferential treatment during a vendor bidding process.
Both Ferreira and Solomon have denied any wrongdoing, saying all transactions were subject to the independent approval of the company’s procurement office.
No response from CEO Solomon
Last Wednesday morning, Guardian Media emailed VCU CEO Solomon and cc’d Ferreira with questions about the petition that had been sent to the Board and asked if she was willing to respond to the claims.
In light of the revelations, we also asked if she was willing to step down and, if so, why or why not?
We also asked if she was willing to mediate on the issues raised with the help of the board and reach an agreement.
On Thursday, Guardian Media sent Solomon two WhatsApp reminders at 2 pm and 3:35 pm to respond to questions sent to her via email, an email address in which she had responded to questions to this investigative journalist for another ongoing story. On Friday, we sent her the email again, followed by a WhatsApp message, and also sent her all the relevant documents for her review, as well as a reminder to respond to the questions at 1:05 pm and 3:50 pm. Calls to her cell phone also went unanswered. There was no response up to Saturday.