NY consulate staff claim victimisation

By Ria Taitt Political Editor

Staff at the Consulate General in New York are calling on Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to intervene urgently into what they describe as a horrendous situation at that office. 

There has been for some time a situation affecting job security where some staff members (categorised as A2 workers) are not getting their A2 visas renewed and are finding themselves forced out of employment at the Trinidad and Tobago diplomatic office. 

The A2 diplomatic visa is a non-immigrant visa which allows foreign accredited officials (ie, Trinidad and Tobago citizens), not in the diplomatic category, to enter into the US and engage in official activities of their government. 

It is normally used for non-diplomatic Trinidad and Tobago employees working in the US at the diplomatic offices. 

Diplomats are provided with a different type of visa. 

Sources said that since July 2012, the Trinidad and Tobago Consulate lost 17 employees, 12 of whom were terminated and five who resigned. One resignation letter which the Sunday Express obtained, spoke of the frustration of the worker.

And now, sources say, more people are facing the breadline because of the decision of the government to “withhold”  the A2 visas. 

Sources claimed that the new policy was recommended by the Consul General Nan Ramgoolam. 

“When she sees A2, she automatically assumes that it is PNM supporters,” one source stated. 

In order to get an A2 visa, the employee fills out the online form, prints it and takes to administration (Consulate) which in turn sends it with a note to the US Department of State. 

In the past the Consulate recommended the granting of the visas and on this basis it was renewed by the US State Department. 

This is no longer happening. 

Once this process is interrupted, the person’s job is threatened.  

One of the people who was not given a renewal of his A2 visa and lost his job at as result was Terrence Lewis. 

Sources claim that his visa was allowed to expire because his mother, Theresa Lewis worked at Balisier House. 

But, sources stressed, other people whose jobs are on the line have no political connections.

“Remember their status in the United States is dependent on their jobs at the Consulate General. How could the Trinidad and Tobago Consul General use this method to terminate the employment of T&T nationals exposing them to the risk of  homelessness and the distinct possibility of forced repatriation. And you can become homeless so easy in the US. It is not a place where you can go by your sister or aunt. And nobody is listening to us,” one source said. 

“Over the years every political organisation has sent people to work in the Consulate  and  they are all still there. These people just work. They don’t care who is in power,” a source stated.

Underlining the novelty of the current situation, a source said: “All different kinds of people have been working in harmony over the years in the Consulate. We know that we are working for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. Once the elections are over and a Government comes into office, we know our interest is first and foremost the Government and the people of Trinidad and Tobago, and not any political organisations or party.”

Traditionally it is the senior diplomats who have been recalled whenever there was a change in political administration, sources said. “People on A2 visas basically do clerical work. They don’t form policy. And no previous Consul General and ambassador has pursued after A2 staff in this way,” the source said.

There has also been a change in their contractual arrangements. 

The Sunday Express was told that in the past workers were generally given one or two-year contracts, which were invariably renewed. 

They also had all the benefits of sick leave, maternity leave or bereavement leave, etc. “Everything changed when this government came into power. Everybody’s contract was reviewed,” one source stated. “Then people were given employment letters covering a six-month period and told that the contracts were sent to Port of Spain for vetting. We are still awaiting the outcome of those vettings.  More than one year has passed and nothing has happened,” one source said.

Under the last government, many of the contracts were renewed just before the May 2010 elections and therefore expired in 2012. At that time workers were given an examination.

Many of them believed that this examination was designed to provide a basis for their dismissal. Eight workers failed the examination and that matter is currently in the Industrial Court. Sources said those who passed were promised that their contracts would be renewed. On the contrary they are now being faced with the prospect of non-renewal of their visas, which amounts to virtual termination, sources noted. 

“We are waiting for contracts more than one year later,” the source stated.  

Furthermore the workers have been stripped of their benefits.

Sources said employees have letters of employment, stating that they are working for six months (giving the date of the start and the date of the termination), and they can be dismissed with one day’s notice. “You have no benefits, no sick leave, you have nothing. If you stay home, or if you leave work an hour early, that time is deducted from your pay. The workers are paid hourly at the Consulate. That is where we have reached,” the source said. 

One source said, a proposal to allow staff to compensate for days taken by working overtime was vetoed. 

“So people are sick but they are coming to work, coughing on each other, because they don’t want to lose a day’s pay and because they are so afraid to lose their jobs. It is horrible. And the bad part is that nobody is helping us. Every time something happens the employees write to Foreign Affairs, they copy the letter to various people. and nobody responds.  Nobody is helping us, everybody has a hands-off approach,” sources said.

 Sources said this state of affairs was only happening at the New York Consulate. Other heads of mission, including the Embassy in Washington, have not implemented similar changes, one source noted. 

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