By Raffique Shah
December 11, 2018
In my column last week in which I lamented the collapse of Petrotrin, I submitted that one of the tragic consequences would be the oil refinery falling into the hands of foreigners (by lease or purchase), and the workers who were terminated returning to seek employment with the new operators, prepared to work for substantially lower wages and salaries than they earned with the State-owned company.
Two days later, the Express ran a news story which told of ex-workers returning to Pointe-a-Pierre seeking employment with two local firms that have been contracted to conduct continuing maintenance works on the refinery and other installations. It spoke of the applicants being offered, and accepting, 50 percent of their previous salaries. I have independently confirmed that this is true, but the numbers being rehired are small.
I am no clairvoyant to have predicted precisely what would happen following the closure of the company. I applied common sense to the scenario that unfolded over the past few months, and what will likely happen in the future when some major plant operator snaps up the refinery. More ex-employees, especially those with special skills who were diligent and displayed good work ethics, and who are below age 50, will find it attractive to work for, say, $25,000 per month, down from $40,000, or even $12,000 down from $25,000.
This is not a case of half-a-loaf being better than none. It’s being realistic, not just in the face of an economic climate that is uncertain, but of the realignment of relations between capital and labour when it comes to taking risks and sharing the rewards. Investors, including the State, or, I dare say especially the State, which acts on behalf of all citizens, must ensure that they manage enterprises prudently, demand productivity from those who are in their employ, never forgetting that they are ultimately accountable to the people.
Somehow over the past fifty years, things fell apart as those who were employed in the hydrocarbons industries arrogated unto themselves possession if not ownership of our natural resources. From top to bottom, they feasted on the oil-spoils, paying themselves salaries that could not be justified, not when the masses were marginalised, denied a fair share of the national cake.
If we fail to address these inequities now that the Patrotrin bubble has burst, if we do not use the opportunity it offers us to make productivity and a more equitable distribution of wealth central to national development in the future, then we might as well resign ourselves to reducing Trinidad and Tobago to being a failed State.
To think that this country was so richly endowed with human and other resources, we were poised to enter the First World circle, on the brink of achieving developed country status.
We can still do it, but it will require a cohesive, all-embracing drive that is near-impossible in the tribal setting we have weaved, pitting one race against the other, further sub-dividing the society into a hundred shades pale, each believing it is superior to the other.
Worse than that, we glorify greed: everybody wants to be wealthy, but few people want to work to get there. Productivity stinks, from top to bottom. Indeed, President Paula Mae-Weekes, who rarely engages in controversy, recently chided public servants over their “inefficiency, ineptitude and stagnation”. She noted that while some in their ranks worked hard, many hardly worked (my phrasing, not the President’s).
But this lackadaisical attitude to work applies to almost all sectors, even the private sector, which, in most countries, usually sets the benchmarks for efficiency and productivity.
Not surprisingly, foreigners come to T&T and put us to shame in our own backyard. I’ll cite a few instances I personally know of. A niece of mine got a two-month stint on-the-job training at a ministry in Port of Spain when she was at university. Her biggest challenge was to travel to and from the city daily. She begged to be given something to do, got nothing, and, as she told me, she almost died of boredom.
After she graduated, she landed a job with a Chinese firm that is executing a major project for Government. A chemist, she and all her colleagues report for work at 8 a.m. They enjoy a lunch break of 90 minutes and leave at 5.30 p.m. They actually work (not “larhay”) for their remuneration, and they must work 40-hour weeks. The Chinese do not recognise most of the public holidays in T&T: employees who take days-off must make up for lost time on weekends. My niece tells me the work environment is conducive to productivity, and the project is on time, within budget, and up and running.
I heard a caller to a radio programme, speaking of working on a construction site that the Chinese take a “three-hour siesta” at midday, then emerge invigorated to do a full afternoon’s work.
A Venezuelan labourer worked at a home I know. He single-handedly spread three loads of dirt in the yard, manually compacted it, completing the job in one day! I am told that in the hospitality business (restaurants, bars, etc), Venezuelans are now indispensible. Recently, Movie Towne magnate Derek Chin called on the T&T Government to allow them some form of work-permit arrangement.
We people? A mid-level public servant hustles daily to take breakfast at a cafeteria at 10 a.m. having just arrived on her job at one of the Campus towers. By 2 p.m. she’s back to buy a take-away meal—on her way home.
We cannot live in this latter mode and hope to survive in a world that is driven by productivity, efficiency, hence competitiveness. Live in “larhay” land and “we dogs dead”…for sure.