Reasonableness and common sense must prevail, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley said yesterday as he sought to achieve conciliation rather than confrontation in the current impasse between the Oilfields Workers' Trade Union (OWTU) and State-owned Petrotrin.
“The Government is not hostile to the union, or disrespectful to the union. The Government has a responsibility to the wider national community. I can tell you (that even) a one per cent increase (in wages) involves hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said at a news conference at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann's.
Rowley said Petrotrin's ability to pay any increase now is “a charge on the Exchequer because currently, the company has basically become—it wasn't always that way—a ward of the Ministry of Finance”.
The Prime Minister added he was sure the “responsible and venerable OWTU will regard as their duty to be reasonable to the people of Trinidad and Tobago and to themselves. I expect that at the end of the day, reason will prevail, he said. “I want to say to all involved that 2016 is not 2010, or 2008,” he stressed.
Irresponsible to negotiate
As he signaled the serious economic implications of pushing the company into further debt, the Prime Minister also stressed: “What the Government, on behalf of taxpayers, is being asked to do is to make an offer and an agreement for the (negotiating) period of 2015 to 2017, without knowing what the conclusion is for the (negotiating) period 2011 to 2015.
“As Prime Minister who wants the best for all our citizens and who wants the best for Petrotrin employees, I think it would be irresponsible for the Government to enter into that arrangement, (and) to offer and execute an increase on Petrotrin's payroll for 2015 to 2017 (negotiating period), not knowing what that percentage increase would apply to. I think it is more reasonable for us to conclude the period 2011 to 2015, and then we would know that becomes the base on which the period 2015 to 2017 can be concluded,” Rowley stated.
Rowley said it was a Kamla Persad-Bissessar-led Government which had offered Petrotrin workers 0/0/0 in 2013 for the negotiating period 2011-2015 while offering other public sector workers 14 per cent for the same period.
The same United National Congress, which excoriated the Finance Minister for talking about 0/0/0, had made the same offer to Petrotrin at a time when the economy was doing better, he added.
Rowley said the union had refused this offer on November 28, 2013, and the matter was eventually referred to the Industrial Court, which is to make a ruling for this period. He said it was for the court to make a ruling on what was a fair offer to the union.
“We have had informal contacts with the union, not in negotiations but talking to the Government and the Ministry of Labour, and the next thing we knew, negotiations for the period 2015 to 2017 commenced and became a bone of contention because the union was making a request for a certain percentage increase and the company has offered 0/0/0. So the union has an argument that...the governments are offering us 0/0/0 over a six-year period.”
Rowley said this was not really true because the union was at the Industrial Court contesting what would happen for the 2011-2015 period.
Asked about contingency plans involving the Defence Force in the event of a shutdown, the Prime Minister said the Government's responsibility was to service the entire country. “And whether it is a strike, an emergency, a landslide or fire at the hospital, the Government is duty-
bound to be ready to respond. And if it gets to that, we will respond appropriately to ensure that the public inconvenience is minimised or eliminated,” he said.
The Prime Minister said one of the major challenges will be to rectify the situation at Petrotrin so that it does not continue to be a “ward of the Ministry of Finance”. “ It can be said that Petrotrin's fortunes, or lack thereof, are threatening the wider national community, and it is against that background that we have to determine what happens at Petrotrin,” he said.