THE Chief Personnel Officer’s (CPO) starter two per cent offer to public sector workers, rising unemployment, the erosion of permanent work regimes and the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots are among the topics that are expected to dominate the Labour Day observance in TT.
The theme of this year’s celebration is Unite To Fight: Today For Me, Tomorrow For You.
Trade union leaders told Sunday Newsday they are also deeply concerned about the continued absence of dialogue between the government and the working class and the high cost of living.
They believe if things continue on the current trajectory, it could spell trouble for the country.
Public Services Association (PSA) president Leroy Baptiste described the country’s labour climate as toxic and confrontational.
“It is a virtual war zone,” he said.
PSA officials met on Friday with CPO Dr Daryl Dindial in a third instalment of discussions on wage increases within the public sector. The union has rejected Dindial’s four per cent wage increase offer for the period 2014-2021.
The CPO also met recently with representatives of the Police Social and Welfare Association and the Fires Services Association.
Baptiste believes the main issue facing all workers in this country is what he considers to be the annihilation of the middle class and the widening gap between the working, middle and upper classes.
Flowing from the main issue, Baptiste said, are the techniques employed by the government which he accused of “attacking the few remaining better paying jobs under the guise of restructuring in the state sector.”
Baptiste cited restructuring exercises at Caribbean Airlines, Trinidad Cement Ltd, Tourism Development Company, Petrotrin, University of TT, and more recently, the Telecommunications Services of TT (TSTT), as examples.
He claimed the government has also set its sights on the Water and Sewerage Authority, TT Electricity Commission, Board of Inland Revenue, Customs & Excise and the Port Authority.
Claiming the government has continued to attack permanent jobs across the board, Baptiste said when state enterprises are restructured, the new entities are created to offer short-term contracts with little or no benefits.
As such, he said, workers are left with no capacity to plan their future and will not qualify for home mortgages.
“The paltry salaries exclude them from qualifying for mortgages anyway.”
Baptiste also accused the government of refusing to ensure the filling of vacancies within the public service.
He claimed more than half of all positions in the public service are vacant.
“Instead, they have proliferated the public service with contract employment and the effect is the continued exploitation of workers with the proverbial axe over their heads every six months, not knowing whether they are going or coming.”
Saying unemployment in TT “is as bad as it gets,” Baptiste claimed the under-employment situation is even worse.
He said high school and university graduates, unable to get employment in their areas of interest, are forced to settle for on-the-job trainee positions.
“What is worse is that government officials pitch such outcomes as employment. And those who receive so-called employment, whether in their field or just glad to be working, are doing so for a stipend. They cannot take care of themselves or their family with the salary they receive. They also cannot afford the basic necessities of life such as shelter and food.”
Baptiste said at the PSA, they had advertised for the positions of executive and personal assistants for five days through Caribbean Jobs, an online platform. He added in those five days, they received over 900 applicants.
He said the recent rush to get an estimated 2,000 jobs on the Royal Caribbean Group International cruise-ships also speaks volumes about the high levels of unemployment in the country.
“The government spin on unemployment conflicts with the reality.”
Baptiste described as “hostile and toxic,” the government’s relationship with the trade union movement.
Saying that unions have been cornered into what he believes is a “fight back scenario,” he claimed, “We must never lose sight that this is by design in that the government has set about to structure the society in such a way as to favour the rich majority.”
He noted that corporations declare “absurd profits” of hundreds of millions of dollars while average workers cannot make ends meet.
“This is flawed economics that must be resisted on the grounds that it is unjust.”
Baptiste said since assuming the post of PSA president on January 1, 2022, he has not yet met with Labour Minister Stephen Mc Clashie.
“I have not met him nor have I ever thought of him as someone to meet. He seems blissfully nonchalant.”
Oilfields Workers Trade Union’s education and research officer Ozzie Warwick also believes the country’s labour environment is “unstable and in crisis.”
“That instability is caused by the government’s decisions and policies that have created an environment of uncertainty, anxiety and, most importantly, insecurity.”
Like Baptiste, he sees retrenchment and the non-settlement of wage and salary negotiations as two front-burner issues this Labour Day.
Saying that no new labour laws have been brought to the Parliament within recent times, Warwick also complained about the imposition of what he believes is the government’s structural adjustment programme in its decision to overhaul TSTT and other entities.
He said, “All these and others are manifestations of the government’s attempt to neo-liberalise the state by attempting to weaken trade unions, create more job insecurity and place the full burden of economic adjustment on ordinary working people.”
To add insult to injury, Warwick said, the working population also has to contend with rising fuel and food prices and goods and services.
“There is a general sense of despair, frustration and anger among ordinary working people. Our theme properly captures the mood of the working class.”
He said this year’s Labour Day also represents “a moment of fight back against economic tyranny, injustice and inequality.”
Veteran trade unionist Michael Annisette said the trade union movement does not have a relationship with the PNM administration.
“Under this Rowley-led administration, there is a constant attempt to undermine and marginalise trade unions,” he said.
“There is no doubt that all of their policies have been geared toward marginalising the movement and pauperising employees.”
Annisette, the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union (SWWTU) president general, said the situation has given rise to income and wealth inequalities.
He warned that if the trend persists, it will have dire consequences for TT’s social fabric “and we will live to regret it.”
Annisette believes the current crime situation is a reflection of these inequalities.
“It has nothing to do with Laventille or Gonzales but who we have become as a people.”
He said the Labour Day observance will continue to be about the rights of the working class.
“They must be able to have a say in the decision-making process on issues that directly affect them.”
Annisette said social dialogue is one of the fundamental pillars of a true democracy.
“But the government has continued to make decisions and force it on workers.”
He said the CPO’s initial two per cent wage offer for public servants for the period 2014-2021 is a case in point.
“There was no consultation, no discussion. They said it was a proposal but the articulation of that proposal was a mandate. And they have continued to show that insensitivity to the plight of workers in this country.”
Annisette, who is also the National Trade Union Centre’s general secretary, said the trade union movement is also deeply concerned about youths going astray.
He said young people need to regain faith in institutions “because there is a widening gap between how they think and how institutions view them.”
Apart from the youth, Annisette said attention must also be paid to the well-being of citizens.
“The whole question of being people-centred must become a reality. We are looking at justice for all – a better TT that recognises everyone’s potential and innate rights.”
National Union of Government and Federated Workers (NUGFW) president general James Lambert, who is scheduled to address Tobago’s Labour Day celebration, said he intends to focus on the current wage negotiations among other issues.
“My main issue will be the treatment that has been meted out to public sector workers and we feel that enough is enough,” he said.Trinidad’s Labour Day rally, which features addresses by OWTU president general Ancel Roget and other labour leaders, will be held at historic Charlie King Junction, Fyzabad.
Tobago’s march is expected to begin at 9 am from the Gulf City Mall, Lowlands to the Scarborough Esplanade.
Labour Day, which was declared a national holiday in 1973, recognises the contribution of the 1937 Butler Riots to the modern labour movement.