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Time For Conciliation
Posted: Wednesday, March 17, 2004

by George Alleyne,

The time has come for conciliation in an effort to achieve the clearly needed settlement of the protracted wage dispute between construction workers building the Atlantic Train IV plant at Point Fortin and the project's main contractors, Bechtel International. The dispute, which has in the process triggered the resignation of the country's Labour Minister, Larry Achong, been used as a manoeuvre by third parties to threaten the shut down of the country and has provoked negative focus, today demands the need by both parties to the dispute to seek to understand each other's position.

What is needed today is neither an expanded partisan corporate communications approach by Bechtel International nor emotional words of defiance by worker representatives, but rather the acceptance of a need for a solution. It is clear that both parties to the ongoing dispute have convinced themselves that there is no need to yield. The disinterested person merely has to read last weekend's advertisement by Bechtel or to watch televised shouts of defiance and hurt by the workers to realise how far apart are the respective positions. In turn, I do not believe that Bechtel's side has been advanced by remarks that Trinidad and Tobago workers should not expect to be paid as much as workers in the United States of America. Nor do I hold that the workers' side has been represented by threatened action to turn Trinidad and Tobago into another Haiti.

I accept the argument, and indeed it is age old, that Bechtel International and Atlantic LNG, on whose behalf Bechtel is constructing Train IV at Point Fortin, are in the business not because of altruism, but to make a profit. Without that profit neither can for long remain in business, and not only they but the workers and their families suffer. What the workers would be entitled to question, but it can only be through reasoned argument, would be the intent of the business, domestic or international, maintaining a level of profits at the expense of worker dignity.

However, as long as the workers receive a reasonable return for their labour, that is, are provided wages and/or salaries both in keeping with norms for the industry and likely profits for the employer, they would not be likely to see themselves as underpaid. With specific reference to the workers on the construction of Atlantic LNG's Train IV, they are temporary workers, id est workers not only without security of tenure, but whose jobs end with the completion of the project. In other words they are no better from the viewpoint of security than the migrant workers of Europe, nor the Mexican workers who seek temporary jobs on US farms, or Caribbean migrant workers who go to Canada to pick fruit. The reader will note that I have said from the viewpoint of security, for admittedly the workers on Train IV are by the nature of their jobs better paid than the migrant workers of Europe. But when the day is ended there is no job and ipso facto income to which to return. So that even as the norms apply, the workers would be correct in expecting a built in differential. And this, in addition to a "terminal allowance."

Clearly, there must be flexibility, and industrial variations should be taken into account as, for example, in the United States. The United States has a Fair Labour Standards Act, introduced in 1938, under which Minimum Wages were established in different States. But even within the Minimum Wage framework, the Fair Labour Standards Act allowed for "industry committees" to fix minimum wage rates at higher levels that what had been set by the Act. But the Fair Labour Standards Act went even further, it allowed not only for a Minimum Wage but a Maximum Wage as well, accepting in the process the principle of flexibility. Trade union advisers have shown the Train IV construction workers, who neither belong to a trade union nor are part of a bargaining unit, how, because of this, they can exploit a loophole in the Industrial Relations Act of 1972. Under the Act a worker cannot represent himself before the Industrial Court,and if he is neither unionised nor is part of a bargaining unit an ex parte injunction cannot be filed against him, which would force him back to work. Regrettably, the loophole is being exploited at tremendous expense to this country's reputation for social stability.

Meanwhile, whatever have been the differences in the positions adopted by both parties to the industrial dispute, I hold that they should seriously consider conciliation. Should this be done, it should be clearly understood by the Mediator (or Arbitrator, call him what you will) that he/she is there to present advice to Bechtel International's representatives and representatives of the workers, and not to impose a solution on them. Such a solution can only properly come from the parties concerned in the spirit of give and take. There needs to be a clear attempt for both parties to move from the crippling valley of discord and dissenting viewpoints to the uplands of reason and hope.

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