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Country Needs A Fair Labour Standards Law
Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2004

by George Alleyne

Government must move to seek to bring about an early end to the troubling disputes at Atlantic LNG which have led to a halt in the construction of the company's Train Four, and the virtual shutdown of Atlantic LNG plants, all at Point Fortin. Any moves, however, must leave the workers with their dignity. The affected workers, whether tugboat operators who are refusing to berth tankers at the company's terminal at Point Fortin, or construction workers at Train Four, have advanced that they were receiving wages both inconsistent with the duties they perform and their direct and indirect contribution to the profit margins of Atlantic's shareholders.

Tugboat operators, for example, whose duties include the berthing, unberthing and escort duties relative to the tankers which call at Atlantic LNG's terminal to take on liquefied natural gas to the United States of America receive less than TT$12 an hour, or less than US$1.96 an hour. A tugboat captain, OWTU Trinmar Branch President, Ancil Roget, has been quoted as saying, is paid TT$11.25 an hour or US$1.79 an hour; an engineer - TT$10.25 an hour or US$1.63, and a deckhand and/or cook - TT$6.32 an hour or US$1.00 an hour! What is happening here is that the tugboat operators and construction workers on Train Four are in essence contributing to existing and/or future profits not only of Atlantic LNG shareholders, but to wage and salary levels of persons in the United States of America and Federal, State and City revenues in the US. In turn, there is a contribution to Government revenues in the United Kingdom and Spain. It is an unrequested sacrifice by the relevant workers here, whose wages and salaries are immeasurably below those existing in the United States of America, for example, in similar and not dissimilar jobs.

It is interesting that workers in the United States more than 40 years ago received statutory minimum wages ranging from US$1 an hour in New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire to US$1.15 an hour in Washington and US$1.50 an hour in Alaska. This was as a direct consequence of the approval of the Federal Fair Labour Standards Act of 1938. Also of interest is that the purchasing power of the United States dollar then was far greater that it is today. So that in essence the Trinidad and Tobago workers to whom I have referred as being involved in industrial dispute today with Atlantic LNG and contractors putting up Train Four are receiving far less in terms of what their wages can purchase today than an American worker on the lowest rung of the economic ladder more than 40 years ago. I am writing all of this as dispassionately as possible and choosing my words with extreme care as my intention is not to inflame minds but rather to bring reason to bear on what to the country is an extremely distressing situation.

Nonetheless, the affected workers are entitled to hold that they should get a fair return by United States of America and international standards, generally, for their labour. For their strength and their youth are three of the five things that will "come not back". I ask the question, and not rhetorically: Would tugboat captains and crews in the United States, or would construction crews on the type of project that Train Four represents work for the sort of wage levels against which the workers are today protesting? Clearly, there should be a link between fair value for the contribution these jobs make, have made and will make to the overall profit of the company, as well as the profits of distributors in the United States and the contested wage levels contested today. Indeed, when in 1933 six American States - Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Ohio - introduced minimum wage laws, they were based on the then hailed principle of fair value. I wish to emphasise, that what I have written notwithstanding, the fault for the comparatively low wage structures which have triggered worker concerns in Point Fortin, is not that of Atlantic LNG but rather that of successive Administrations in this country. The country needs a Fair Labour Standards Act, which will demand the linking of fair value, not only to the returns that a company can be reasonably expected to make on the workers' labour, but to the cost of living as well.

Government in negotiating with investors the setting up of large scale plants here should establish minimum wages for categories of workers engaged in plant construction and what have you. It must also interest itself in the wage levels proposed to and accepted by investors for construction projects. And 75 to 90 per cent on whatever is agreed upon by the investors should be what the workers should expect to be paid. The difference of ten to 25 per cent would take care of delays and other unforeseen circumstances. Care should be taken to see that the wages come within reasonable striking distance of what is the norm for developed countries. The standard for the developed world is suggested as it is from the developed world that we receive the bulk of our investments. Government should hesitate in applying its standard flagbearer, the Industrial Relations Act, or any planned modified version to settle today's disputes at Point Fortin, save as a means of getting both parties together to discuss ways and means of reaching amicable solutions to the disputes.

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