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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Having taken the decision to purchase, at a very high and ongoing price, a temporary peace settlement, the challenge is for Prime Minister Keith Rowley in tandem with the management of Petrotrin and the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union to convert the temporary reprieve into a foundation for the transformation of Petrotrin.

The challenge does not end there, however. The Prime Minister must have an adequate response to the demands the unions representing other state enterprises and the central government will make for like treatment to the Petrotrin workers. He and his government must also find ways and mechanisms to establish a base for constructing a national consensus in the industrial, economic, business and people sectors.

If he does not successfully lead the initiative to achieve the consensus, then the instruction to Petrotrin to make the temporary five per cent settlement will stalk him for the next three-and-one-half years of his administration. Indeed, it may cut short the term of his administration.

Prime Minister Rowley argued on television that the settlement was necessary to avoid the industrial calamity that would have ensued if the strike had not been averted. But, as he acknowledged, the peace can have a short life: “let us not for one minute believe that we have dealt with or have solved the problem.”

The problems of Petrotrin are myriad and diverse: make a successful adjustment to the crash in oil prices; turn around the drastic reduction in production of oil and gas; replace obsolete plant and equipment; achieve greater productivity levels; transform the poor management systems; reverse the pattern of the loss of billions in questionable investments; end the historical practice of Petrotrin as a recruitment centre (from the board of directors to the labourer) for the political supporters of the in-party; and burn out the cancer of corruption and nepotism at the state-owned energy enterprise.

The temporary settlement must be converted into a forum for discussion and committed action in the national interest. What is involved here, whatever the technical challenges facing the company, is whether we have the understanding and ability to make profitable again an invaluable national asset; even with foreign capital.

It is really about finding out whether T&T is fit to live in the world of the 21st century, a world that grants no favours, and a global community in which countries/nations have to use what they have to achieve sustainable quality living for their nationals.

Among the challenges thrown up by the settlement, one that has already begun to take shape, is dealing with other groups of workers in state enterprises and central government who will begin to ask, “What about we?”

As I advocated in last week’s column, arriving at a national consensus among the social partners, Government, private sector, and workers’ representatives in the short term to treat with the dramatic fall in revenue is through an effectively functioning tripartite forum. Such a forum must establish an understanding of the gravity of the problems facing the economy and society and must work out a responsible and reasonable approach to industrial relations and productive endeavour.

It is based on such a platform that individual industrial agreements can be arrived at. The tripartite forum is not a panacea, but one used with a measure of success by several European countries to cope with the recession of 2008—check ILO reports.

Predictably, much of the comment articulated before and after the settlement to avoid the strike was underpinned by special group interests on all sides without concern for the wider national good.

The segmentation of the society continues with little attempt to produce a national approach to development of the economy, the society and a civilization post slavery, indentureship and crown colony government.

Moreover, each group continues to perceive of what is needed in narrow terms without consideration for the other group/segment of the society. For instance, would it be feasible for a private sector company to operate for six years without making a profit, accumulating bills along the way and doing so notwithstanding the fact that the company would have accumulated large profits and capital during a previous period?

Of course not! And it should not have been expected of the business community operating in a semi-capitalist economy. Yet, there were those who were screaming for workers at Petrotrin and elsewhere to go for six years without increases and an overarching plan and programme to discern a way out.

On the other side, it would be unrealistic for unions to seek to make demands for wage and other benefits that will place the central government and state enterprises in paralysis with no way out, but for the enterprise and state to collapse.

One element of the process for constructing a T&T and Caribbean civilization out of the ruins of slavery, indentureship and colonial domination is for there to be widespread recognition and acceptance of the mandate that we all have to work towards: the creation of a society that recognises the historical differences and contributions, but is now focused on creating anew.

It would have been easy for this columnist to focus exclusively on the obvious perils that face the economy and society resulting from the five per-cent temporary settlement. I have chosen to put forward a possible way out of the difficulties and left the responsibility to do so with the Prime Minister.


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