Saturday, February 17, 2018

Duke’s pointless provocation

Watson Duke’s call for workers of the Board of Inland Revenue (BIR) and Customs and Excise Division to stay away from work today and tomorrow in a “holidays” protest is unnecessarily extreme and thoroughly unwarranted.

Indeed, the call is so disproportionate to the actual issue that one is left to wonder how much of it might have to do with Mr Duke’s concern about the new Trinidad and Tobago Revenue Authority (TTRA), and how much of it might be related to his own campaign for re-election as president of the Public Services Association (PSA).

With just over two weeks to go before public servants elect their union’s next president on November 27, Mr Duke, as the incumbent, is outpacing his rivals in the publicity stakes and grabbing headlines with this protest call.

However, whatever the link between his campaign for re-election and his protest call, the fact is that he personally has much at stake in the workers’ response. If the majority of workers heed his call, Mr Duke could validly claim it as both a vote of no-confidence in the TTRA and a vote of confidence in his leadership of the PSA. If they do not, he could have a problem.

Purely on the basis of industrial relations, there is no logical justification for such extreme action. This is an issue that is a decade in the making and still subject to negotiation. As an overdue modernisation of state operations, the Revenue Authority holds much promise.

The Rowley administration has sought to avoid repeating a mistake made in the Manning days when staff would have had to apply for jobs in the Revenue Authority without any guarantee of being accommodated there or anywhere.

Now, the Government has given the assurance that any staff declining or denied entry into the new TTRA would be guaranteed public service jobs at the levels they currently enjoy.

If there remain areas of dissatisfaction, the more effective action would be for the PSA to insist that the Government come to the table and work them out. Trying to shut down the operations of the BIR and Customs and Excise is pointless, needless provocation.

From the public’s perspective, even if most people are not following all the details related to the establishment of the TTRA, they are in general agreement with the need to transform the administration of taxes. Everyone pays the price when taxes are not properly collected, whether through acts of omission or commission.

Understandably, workers of the BIR and Customs and Excise would have additional concerns related to job security and the transfer of terms and conditions of work and benefits from the old to the new entity. These are not matters to be settled by extreme acts of protest but by negotiation. If there are differences to be settled, the responsible thing to do is to hammer them out at the negotiating table.

Instead of staying away from work and imposing unnecessary frustration on the taxpaying public, the staff at the BIR and Customs and Excise would be better off putting their energies into strategising and astute negotiation.