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Pt Fortin Dispute Has Dragged On Too Long
Posted: Wednesday, March 31, 2004

by George Alleyne,

The industrial dispute which brought construction work on Atlantic LNG's Train IV project at Point Fortin to a halt several weeks ago has dragged on for far too long. The need to settle quickly is crucial, not simply for the main contractors, Bechtel International and the striking workers, but Atlantic LNG which has already signalled it needs to meet contract deadlines. Bechtel may wish to consider as a guideline, the principle of industrial variations that several states in the United States of America adopted many years ago following on the putting into effect of a Federal minimum wage with the enactment in 1938 of the Fair Labour Standards Act. I have already made somewhat more than passing reference to the Act in an earlier column.

But although the Fair Labour Standards Act imposed a statutory minimum wage in the US, with the exception of a few categories of workers, nonetheless in several States which had wage boards, the boards allowed for rates to be set in excess of the Federal minimum, ranging from 20 percent to 60 percent above the minimum. This was as a result of what was referred to then as geographical and industrial variations. Now clearly the industrial variations that would apply here could not possibly be based on the Trinidad and Tobago Government Minimum Wage of $8 an hour, but rather the minimum wage obtaining in the energy sector. That is, the minimum wage level which has already been set for the relevant workers through negotiations on their behalf by their Union, the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union (OWTU). Any setting of a wage level for the construction workers would of necessity have to take into careful account the temporary nature of their work. The nation has to understand that the jobs of these workers will end after some two years or so of employment, before they return to what is often referred to as the bread line. There is no continuity, and job security is seen by them in terms limited to contracts which are relatively short term.

It is the principle of industrial variations which should concern us at this crucial point. Someone has said that workers in Trinidad and Tobago should not expect to be paid as much as workers in the United States. Unfortunately, he has not troubled to tell the country what he considered a just differential. Does he view the wage of the US worker in 1938 in relation to that of the Trinidad and Tobago worker 12 to one at the lowest level of worker, or in the case of the oil workers, using the principle of industrial variation, 5.76 to one as being a just and fair ratio? Two weeks ago I argued in this column in favour of conciliation, a position I still hold, though not in forever mode. I switch gears. The news that Shell, as part of a move to exploit Libya's crude and natural gas reserves, has agreed to "a long term strategic partnership" with Libya's National Oil Company has lessons for Trinidad and Tobago, its Government and its people.

Libya's natural gas reserves have been placed, it has been reported, at some 40 percent of this country's 100 trillion cubic feet. Yet as a condition of Shell's being allowed to exploit Libya's natural gas, and bring it (Shell) billions of dollars in profits, the North African nation has demanded and forged an agreement which calls for State involvement as a partner in what both parties accept will be a highly profitable exercise. If Libya, which for years had been viewed as a pariah, for reasons which had been well documented, should be able to achieve this why should Trinidad and Tobago not long ago have insisted that any exploiting of its natural gas should be on the basis of a not dissimilar "long term strategic partnership" with a State energy company. Domestic and international banks, I am certain, would be interested in approving loan funding to the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to meet investment requirements. In turn, the country's gas would form part of the equity of such a project.

I say this because Libya was not going to allow any energy company to exploit that country's patrimony in return for the Biblical "mess of pottage" (Genesis 25: 29-34). And Trinidad and Tobago must trump and follow suit. Understandably, the risks are there, but with the returns clearly identified, the country would do well to understand that, like Libya, it can move to the big league, where it rightly belongs. And people were wondering why Libya was prepared to pay out billions of dollars in costs for the Lockerbie disaster! Libya's share in the joint enterprise would be formidable. And simply because its President, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, would have appreciated Shell's anxiety to be part of the explosion of international interest in natural gas.

Trinidadians and Tobagonians should not be surprised if the Libyan Government's share is in the order of either 51-49 or 50-50! And there are still more contracts to be signed by Libya with other undoubtedly very, very anxious international companies. It is time that we stop telling ourselves that only international companies can exploit our resources. Good heavens, all technology is up for sale. Above all, we must stop thinking as old fashioned colonials.

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