The Plight of Petrotrin and UTT Retrenched Workers

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COMMENTARY
By Dr Kumar Mahabir

As the spokesperson for the retrenched lecturers of UTT, I stand in solidarity with the displaced workers of Petrotrin.

On May 11, 2018, about 60 lecturers were wrongfully dismissed by the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT). On October 1, about 2,600 permanent workers would be innocently sent home by the oil company.

Both the UTT and Petrotrin are national entities. The UTT is a Government-funded, non-profit educational institution and Petrotrin is a commercial State oil company.

The workers in both enterprises are casualties of a “restructuring exercise” designed to cut financial losses by retrenching workers. Our UTT dismissal letters stated that we were “surplus” lecturers who became “redundant” in the university’s “restructuring exercise.”

Victims of Mismanagement and Malfeasance

The workers in the UTT and Petrotrin are victims of mismanagement by successive PNM and PP-appointed Boards of Governors. The Petrotrin worker’s union, OWTU, had always expressed its concern about mismanagement, malfeasance and graft. The trade union had also warned about cost overruns on megaprojects like the now infamous WGTL, USLD and GOP. No Petrotrin worker can be blamed for misappropriating TT$3 billion on the failed GTL plant.

Is the UTT managing taxpayers’ money wisely? Why does it continue to pay its Iraq-born president, Sarim Al-Zubaidy, a reported $240,000 a month? And now Al-Zubaidy’s long-time research partner, Wasi Z. Khan, another foreigner, is reportedly also being paid in foreign currency.

Speaking at a press conference on May 18, 2018 at NAPA, Vice Chairman of the Board Clement Imbert said, “UTT’s new structure will see a reduction in top management from seven Vice Presidents to three, 56 managers to about 33-36.” To date, there has been no announcement that this reduction has been done.

Does the UTT have money to continue to pay the 287 non-teaching workers who have to be retrenched, as Imbert and Education Minister, Anthony Garcia, told the media eight months ago?

Or is Imbert really afraid to fire these workers because of the inevitable backlash of protests from the militant OWTU which also represents the 287 workers?

Why does the UTT continue to pay for expensive full-page, full-colour advertisements in the print media with the pathetic tagline: “UTT IS HERE TO STAY”? Why did the UTT transfer approximately $323 million from its operating funds to continue the construction of its signature campus complex in the jungle in Tamana?

No Consultation with UTT Lecturers Before Dismissal

Unlike Petrotrin workers, we were never shown (the need for) a restructuring plan for the university or a statement of accounts indicating a financial loss. What was worse, the Board of the UTT never held any meeting or discussion with us. Had consultations been offered to us, we would have suggested ways in which jobs could have been saved without the university collapsing.

One of the due process steps followed in industrial relations – before formal notice of dismissal is given to affected employees – is consultation. The UTT failed to consult with us before the premature termination of our 3-year contracts.

The Retrenchment and Severance Benefits Act No. 32 of 1985 of T&T stipulates that “prior to the giving of formal notice in writing of retrenchment,” [the employer] is expected “to enter into consultation” with the affected employees or their representative union “with a view to exploring the possibility of averting, reducing or mitigating the effects of the proposed retrenchment.”

Lies told to UTT and Petrotrin employees

On January 15, 2018, Energy Minister Franklin Khan categorically dismissed a social media report which alleged that 2,000 workers would be retrenched from Petrotrin. He said, “It is mischief to say the least.” As the line Minister, either Khan did not know at the time or was telling a lie.

Speaking on Radio I95.5 on August 27, OWTU’s education and research officer, Ozzi Warwick, accused the government of perpetrating lies and withholding certain facts about Petrotrin. He said: “The country deserves to hear the whole Petrotrin story …. The lies must stop.” Warwick reiterated calls for a public inquiry.

On May 28, Minister Garcia told the media that UTT lecturers had to be “trimmed so that an equal distribution of the cumulative workload could be attained and maintained.” That is a lie propagated by Garcia. No such audit was done, at least in the Education Programme where I taught. To prove that he is not lying, I hereby publicly challenge Garcia to make public his lecturer-student ratio audit for the dismissed lecturers.

At our dismissal meeting, the Head of the Education Programme at UTT, Dr Judy Rocke, gave the reason for her termination of our contracts. She told the assembled lecturers that all Secondary School Specialisation courses were being phased out, resulting in us being “redundant” in the university’s “restructuring exercise.”

Now we know that she was lying. These courses are timetabled and are still being taught to new students during the new semester beginning September 3, 2018.

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Dr. Mahabir taught several courses at UTT including Research Methods.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.

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