...Dookeran: AG to determine policy

 Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Dookeran said there was an issue as to whether the junior staff at the New York Consulate could be given an A2 visa, given their status as locally recruited staff (ie, staff hired from within the United States). 

There are two categories of workers at the Consulate- locally recruited staff and home-based staff (staff sent by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to work at the Consulate).

Speaking to the Sunday Express on Wednesday, Dookeran acknowledged that many of the locally recruited workers affected by the policy decision not to recommend that they get the A2 visas to the US State Department, had worked at the Consulate in New York for over ten years. 

“I know all that. It happened for many years. There is a human side to it,” he said, acknowledging that these workers have built their lives around working in the Consulate and living in the United States as a consequence.

“I have referred the matter to the Office of the Attorney General for a ruling,” he said. 

“If they have other visas it is fine, but the A2 visa is (supposed to be) given to accredited diplomats,” he said, adding: “Out of abundance of caution I have asked the Attorney General to advise us on the right procedures, so we don’t break the law.” 

“Whatever they (the Attorney General office) rule, we would abide by. But there is doubt as to whether it (the long-standing policy of recommending A2 visas for the locally recruited staff) was right or wrong,” he added.

Told by the staff were being dismissed in the interim (while the Attorney General’s department examines the issue), Dookeran said: “Well their terms (of employment) have come to an end.” 

Told that there were reports that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had advised that the A2 visas be granted, Dookeran said: “There was a difference of opinion because (the granting of the visas) had happened in the past. When the matter arose, we said ‘let’s clarify it’.”

Dookeran said there was no issue of political victimisation. “I make sure that I follow the rules,” he said.

Consul General Nan Ramgoolam also denied claims of political victimisation.

Ramgoolam said it was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which advised the Consulate General to cease the hiring of people on A4 visas. It was also the ministry which recommended that the issue of the A2 visa was referred to the “authorised government agency for its opinion”, she said. 

“In fact, the issue of the A2 visa was raised with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since May 2013 when the Consulate General submitted its 2011-2012 Annual Report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in which it identified the perceived anomaly of the hiring of locally recruited staff on A2 visas. On June 19, 2013 a senior technical officer from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs telephoned the senior technical officer at the Consulate General in New York and indicated that hiring persons on A2 visas at the Consulate General should cease. Further, the officer from Port of Spain indicated that the Consulate General should only constitute two categories of staff, that is home-based staff and locally recruited staff.”

She said: “Upon receipt of that information from a senior technical officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Consulate General wrote the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seeking urgent intervention on how to proceed with staff at the Consulate General who is hired on A2 visas. The Consulate General via the Consul General also sought the advice from two former career diplomats, now current ambassadors. Their advice was also submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“It became evident to the Consulate General via subsequent discussion with staff within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that there are varying views among senior technical professional officers on the issue of A 2 visas. It was then that the A2 visa issue was referred to the authorised government agency for its opinion on the matter.”

The Sunday Express obtained a copy of the 2011-2012 Annual Report of the Consul General. 

It stated: “Currently there are no clear policy guidelines for the hiring of staff via A2 visa. The files reveal an absence of proper policy guidelines in the hiring of this category of locally recruited staff. Further, with respect to A2 visa extensions the system the Consulate General met in place and still exists is that in most cases (if not all) extensions are initiated by the employee him/herself and not by the Consulate General. Such practice compromises the office of the Consulate General and it is recommended that such practice should cease immediately.”

Ramgoolam also pointed that when she assumed duty at the Consulate General, the staff complement exceeded the approved Cabinet authority for positions for locally recruited staff and this “continues to be the case to date”. She added that the Consulate General had not hired anyone since July 2012. 

Ramgoolam denied that she mistreated and humiliated staff. 

In response to this claim, Ramgoolam stated via e-mail that, “Hundreds of nationals continue to complain vociferously to the Consul General and senior home based staff of the treatment meted out to them when they visit the Consulate General for services. This is evidenced by hundreds of comments placed in the suggestion box which was introduced by the current Consul General when she assumed office. In addition, comments are also received via email, facebook page, telephone and reviews.”

Ramgoolam added: “Based on the responses received the Consul General, senior home based staff routinely monitor service delivery. On two occasions the Consul General was compelled to intervene when she overheard the manner in which members of the public were being treated. The Consul General had to remind the particular staff member/s that they were to treat the nationals of Trinidad and Tobago and visitors with dignity and provide correct information to them.”

On the issue of leave and loss of pay, Ramgoolam stated that the administration was guided by the terms and conditions of employment of the locally recruited staff. “This issue is strictly an administrative matter that is managed by home based staff (public officers) who are in charge of administration,” she stated. 

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