Sunday, January 21, 2018

That wage deal at Petrotrin

Express editorial logo16

Mark Fraser

The country can breathe a sigh of relief now that the strike at Petrotrin has been called off. But that sigh may be a short breath, because there are costs attached to the deal struck between the Government and the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU).

The OWTU had initially called for a clearly absurd 75 per cent wage increase, while the Government was holding fast to its five per cent mantra. But, since last July, the Government had started backtracking, when Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced that she didn’t know anything about a five per cent wage cap on negotiations. Yesterday, after a 16-hour session, the OWTU settled on a nine per cent wage increase over three years, with six per cent to be given in the third year.

It is passing strange, however, that the Government should have so quickly settled on this deal. Up to Thursday, Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine was assuring citizens that a strike at Petrotrin would not result in any major disruption of gas supplies. The Army had been called out to oversee transport, and gas could always be imported.

The wage dispute would also have gone to the Industrial Court, presumably long before the three-month time-frame threatened by OWTU president-general Ancel Roget. Moreover, if the strike did lead to serious disruptions, the Government could have filed an injunction under the Industrial Relations Act, forcing the Petrotrin employees to go back to work in the national interest.

Yet the Government decided to settle with the one union whose members were least in need of a wage hike. After all, Petrotrin employees are paid 70 per cent more than their comrades in other trade unions.

Additionally, Petrotrin itself is having financial difficulties, and this nine per cent increase isn’t going to help the company’s recovery. It may be that the Government is banking on oil and gas prices rising to a level which will make this agreement fiscally tenable. But that is making policy by hope rather than by cost-benefit calculations.

What exacerbates this scenario is that the next round of negotiations is due in 2015, which is also an election year. That means that whatever benchmarks the Government sets now will be the base mark used by the unions in 2015 – and they will have the additional pressure of a general election to hold the Government to ransom.

Indeed, unions who previously agreed to five per cent would start to grumble even before, while those who are still to settle now have the strong argument that the Government has given nine per cent to the country’s best-paid set of workers.

So citizens can breathe a sigh of relief for the Carnival weekend. But, when the fete is over, it is back to the workers.