Laurel V Williams
Representatives of the Contractors and General Workers Trade Union (CGWTU) are expected to meet with officials from state-owned Lake Asphalt (LATT) on Thursday.
CGWTU president general Joseph Phillip told Newsday the meeting is set for 9 am at the company at Brighton in La Brea.
Although the meeting comes two days after workers appealed for outstanding wages and salaries, Phillip said he did not know the agenda.
LATT officials called for a meeting “and we are going. We have nothing to lose, and we will be going to find out what it is about,” Phillip said by phone on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, workers knelt at the company’s gates, saying they had not been paid for the past two months and more. They appealed for the Prime Minister to intervene.
Hours later, Energy Minister Stuart Young was said to have urgently sought and obtained Cabinet approval to provide LATT with subventions to help pay its expenses, including paying workers.
The union leader said he was okay with the bailout.
“It is money coming to the workers…Workers asked for the Prime Minister to intervene, and so said, so done.”.
But he added, “Those workers with loans in the banks would be charged for late fees and that is another hiccup.”
He also commented, “I heard unofficially that the subvention is about $12 million. But how long would that last? If the company wants to lay off people and retrench workers, let us know. Do not have us in the wilderness like this.”
He said about 300 workers are affected, and reiterated that some of them are likely to lose their wives and homes because of heir financial woes.
An official from the company confirmed the meeting set for tomorrow, adding it was an ongoing initiative between management and the union.
On Wednesday, LATT corporate communications co-ordinator Marsha Marchan said the company welcomed Tuesday’s media release from the Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries. She spoke on behalf of CEO Roger Wiggins.
“We eagerly await the details of the subvention. We are indeed thankful to our line ministry for demonstrating their commitment towards working with us, as we navigate this current situation,” Marchan said.
“Be assured that we will continue to work with all our stakeholders to have the situation resolved in the shortest possible time while maintaining focus on our strategic initiatives, all geared towards the organisation’s viability and self-sustainability.”
On Wednesday, Movement for Social Justice (MSJ) leader David Abdulah expressed solidarity with the workers.
He called on the political directorate to engage the union in meaningful discussions on the way forward for the economic recovery and sustainability of the company.
A statement from Abdulah said it was very disturbing and totally unacceptable that workers in these challenging economic times had to resort to going down on their knees, begging to be paid outstanding salaries.
He said, “All the other efforts – meetings with the management and board, letters written had no result.”
Abdulah recalled that in the early 1970s when the UK market switched to coal tar, asphalt became a much less popular product.
The Trinidad and Tobago Government took ownership of the asphalt extraction business from the pitch lake in La Brea.
Abdulah said LATT is known internationally as the producer of Trinidad Lake Asphalt. It is responsible for the commercial development of the pitch lake, the world’s largest deposit of natural asphalt.
Over the years, the company has residents of La Brea and environs and has been at the forefront of economic activity in the community.
“Various attempts to diversify and revolutionise the company’s operations have been unable to generate the type of economic activity to make the company self-sustainable,” the MSJ leader said.
“Sadly, this has not been realised even though our pitch is world-renowned for its properties and is used in many countries to pave roads with excellent results.”
Several factors, including allegations of corruption under various administrations, hadalso negatively affected LATT, he said.
“There have been reports of sweetheart deals and contracts that have not benefitted the company,” Abdulah said.
“Lake Asphalt’s problems became worse with the closure of Petrotrin and the shutting down of the refinery which resulted in Lake Asphalt not having a local supply of bitumen which is key for the paving of roads.”
The MSJ had repeatedly warned that the refinery closure was a horrible decision and pointed out the negative consequences for LATT.
Abdulah said what is happening at LATT did not happen overnight.
He added, “It is mind-boggling that as soon as this protest activity became public, the Minister of Energy was suddenly able to seek and obtain Cabinet approval for a subvention to assist the company with payment of expenses inclusive of wages.”
Abdulah raised questions about Stephen Mc Clashie’s role in addressing the plight of the workers, saying most of them are his constituents. Mc Clashie is the Labour Minister and La Brea MP and a member of an inter-ministerial committee to assess LATT.
“Did he make interventions to his Cabinet colleagues for the subvention? And if so, why didn’t his Cabinet colleagues act right away?” Abdulah asked.
“This development is a clear reflection of how those in authority treat those they feel do not count while spewing the refrain that we are all in this together.”
Abdulah highlighted the plight of the workers of the Education Facilities Company Ltd (EFCL).
He said they had not been paid on time for the past year, are owed many months of salary and are in the dark about the company’s future and of their lives.
“This disrespect for the workers and disregard for their lives and the well-being of their families by the government is yet another example of how the Rowley PNM government cares not for the working people of TT.”
Opposition MP Rudranath Indarsingh has accused the Prime Minister and his Government of living off the fat of the land while workers are starving with no pay, no ability to feed their families and honour their commitments.
The Couva South MP made the comments on Wednesday in light of the Government’s response to the LATT protest.
Indarsingh said he considered images of LATT workers on their knees, begging for their just dues after weeks without being paid, a defining image of the PNM administration.
In a statement, he said he believes the administration undoubtedly has a plot to undermine the company and its workers.
“There is a sinister agenda being executed in plain daylight by this administration. It is high time that the union, other stakeholders, and this country begin to demand answers.”
Indarsingh, a former labour minster and union leader, said he shuddered to see how the labour movement and the working class have been reduced to their knees by the Dr Keith Rowley administration.
Indarsingh referred to the PM, Young and Finance Minister Colm Imbert and other Cabinet members as cronies. He said it is not fathomable how a Government presided over circumstances in which LATT has been allowed to “denigrate into a corporate question mark.”
He charged that the bread and butter of the company’s workers do not constitute even crumbs.
He questioned why the Cabinet has not made public the inter-ministerial committee report on LATT. Public Administration Minister Allyson West chairs the committee.
“Why it is that months later, the report is still being hidden by Cabinet? What are the Prime Minister, the Minister of Energy and the Cabinet hiding?” Indarsingh asked.
“It is unbelievable that since being appointed Minister of Energy earlier this year, that Minister Stuart Young would preside over a situation in which workers are not paid in weeks. What is the real reason for this?”
He also criticised Mc Clashie, saying he allowed the company to deteriorate “into this level of functional and industrial decay.”
Indarsingh accused the Government of spending over $700 million on failed projects at the National Gas Company (NGC). Indarsingh said not a fraction of that money was spent on the operational costs of LATT, including salaries.
The LATT issue reminded him of statements by president general of the Seamen and Waterfront Workers’ Union, Michael Annisette, on the port of Port of Spain.
He said there was no need to pursue the privatisation of the port, and accused the Government of neglecting its needs in an attempt to sabotage the port and justify privatisation.
“Is the Government plotting to sabotage Lake Asphalt, destabilise its unions and hand over the company’s assets to friends, family and financiers?
“Does the Government have some private agency interested in the company, its assets and its operations?”
Calls to Mc Clashie went unanswered.