By Dr Selwyn R, Cudjoe
June 15, 2021
A few days ago the Attorney General asked the Parliament to approve a supplementary vote of $118.9 million for his ministry. Barataria/San Juan MP Saddam Hosein asked (perhaps pleaded is a better word) how much money the lawyers (120 local and nine foreign) were being paid and the matters for which they were retained.
From the AG’s angle of vision, such a question was preposterous. He responded: “I would like to place on record that the request for the supplementation is driven by the fact that we are still in the course of settling $141.3 million in arrears from the period 2010 to 2015, during which $444.4 million was expended and arrears of $141.3 million left.”
This meant that “the UNC-led administration incurred $600 million in legal fees”. (Express, June 8)
This was a commendable effort by the PNM. UNC still has to tell us how much money it paid out in legal fees to attorneys. Still, I worry why the present AG did not answer Hosein’s question, or, for that matter, how many briefs his wife’s firm, Soo Hon & Al-Rawi, has received from the State.
In refusing to answer Hosein’s question, the AG prevented citizens from having vital information about our fiscal affairs. Every citizen has a right to know how public monies are spent, how much is paid to an attorney and why. I have never understood why our citizens (through their government) pay attorneys such enormous fees when the average citizen is making a minuscule fraction of what a lawyer is paid.
It cannot be denied that poor, lowly paid workers of the country have had the most exposure to Covid-19. Yet, they are hanging on to life by a slender thread. The precariousness of such a position is magnified when we consider the Government’s decision to cut the wages of 10,000 CEPEP workers and the inhumane decision of the management of the KFC restaurant chain to stop the $150 weekly stipend to their workers.
This decision by Prestige Holdings Ltd (PHL) is breathtakingly inhumane. Last month it gave its workers “two pies and a 20-ounce soft drink, in light of the hardships faced by the employees and their families.” One KFC worker told the Express, “We are now on the breadline. We are already struggling to feed our families, and even the little we got, now is being taken away from us” (Express, June).
PHL has since informed the workers that they could approach a financial institution for Covid-relief packages, the exact terms of which will be dependent on the specifics of each applicant and assessed by the financial institution.
In June the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported: “The labour market crisis created by the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, and employment growth will be insufficient to make up for the losses suffered until at least 2023.” Although countries worldwide will emerge from the ongoing health crisis, the rate of poverty will increase.
ILO director-general Guy Ryder concludes: “Recovery from Covid-19 is not just a health issue….Without a deliberate effort to create decent jobs, and support the most vulnerable members of society and the recovery of the hardest-hit economic sectors, the lingering effects of the pandemic could be with us for years in the form of lost human and economic potential and higher poverty and inequality….There can be no real recovery without a recovery of decent jobs.” (June 2).
PHL has said the company cannot afford to pay its workers because it “has outstanding debts to pay off” and no revenue is coming in because its restaurants are closed. The company did not say how much money it made when the restaurants were open and how hard the workers worked to ensure that KFC was a profitable company. Its end-of-year financial statement will reveal the true story of the company’s finances.
The evidence suggests that the poor people and the working people will emerge from this crisis poorer than when the pestilence started. Only the rich and well-positioned will profit from this crisis and come out of it in better shape than when they went in. So while the AG fails to tell us how much money is being paid to the attorneys they retain and Prestige Holdings cries poverty, the poor people will continue to suffer until the third and fourth generations.
In April the ILO suggested that we could come through these perilous times by “stimulating the economy and employment; support businesses, jobs and incomes, protect workers in the workplace; and resort to social dialogue to find solutions”. (April 8).
The Government should follow these recommendations. If not, long after the pandemic has passed the poor and working-class people of T&T will be in an even more terrible place. They need to keep their eyes open so they do not lose sight of their deteriorating economic and health positions. Their lives depend on it.