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Penny under fire over dealings with McLeod

Workers upset fired senator sought ‘political’ help in getting gratuity $$

By By Anika Gumbs CCN Senior Multimedia Investigative Journalist

Sacked People’s National Move­­ment (PNM) senator Pen­ne­l­o­pe Beckles-Robinson is be­ing criti­cised for deci­ding to com­mu­ni­cate with Labour Minis­ter Errol McLeod over out­stan­ding gratuity payments owed to Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) workers she was representing. 

Seven of the workers retained Bec­kles-Robinson, an attorney, in Sep­tem­ber last year to rep­re­sent them in the matter. 

However, the delay in filing legal action against the ministry has upset the workers, who are questioning Bec­kles-Robinson’ action. 

This after Bec­kles-Robinson, in a text mes­­­sage sent to the workers on November 14 this year and obtained by the Sun­day Express, said: “I have approached the matter in different ways, including through the political process.”

The excerpt of the text message is not sitting well with the workers. 

And while Bec­kles-Robinson is ada­­mant McLeod needed to be informed of the matter, in hindsight, she told the Sunday Express the text sent by her gave the wrong message. 

Bec­kles-Robinson, who is also lady vice-chairman of the PNM, said:

“I think the use of the words in the text mes­­­­sage sent the wrong mes­sage.

Some­times, we really have to be care-

ful how we use words in our language.”

Bec­kles-Robinson wrote to McLeod earlier this year, informing him that pre-ac­tion protocol letters rela­ting to the outstanding gratuity pay­ments were sent to permanent secre­tary (PS) Carl Fran­­­­­cis on October 1, 2012.  

As to why Bec­kles-Robinson opted to com­mu­­­­­nicate with McLeod while rep­re­­sen­ting the workers, she said: “I indicated to the workers that I wrote the PS and that he was taking forever to respond. I did not see any harm with letting the minister know that I wrote to the PS in relation to matter and I have not received a response. 

“It was drawn to his attention as to whether this is a matter that needs investigation. 

“I did send an official letter to the minister. 

“I believe it was something I should have done. At the end of the day, he (McLeod) is the minister. He has ulti­mate responsibility for the min­­istry. 

“The letter was sent from a lawyer’s letterhead. 

“The workers may have felt that why am I as an Opposition member writing to the Government. 

“It was really a question of me com­municating to the minister, who ultimately is the one in charge, as it relates to him dealing with PS. 

“I do not even know if the PS brought the matter to the minister’s atten­­tion.”

Bec­kles-Robinson said she felt if the matter was brought to the atten­tion of McLeod, it may have assisted in sett­ling the outstanding issue. 

A total of $3,748,023.28 in gratuity payments in owed to OSHA workers for the period 2006 to 2010.

The workers were previously em­ployed under the Ministry of Labour during 2006 to 2007,  before the esta­blishment of OSHA. 

The Sunday Express learned it was following the establishment of the agency in 2007 that the workers, main­ly inspectors, were offered new contracts. 

Documents obtained by the Sun­day

Express show the contracts ended in 2010, but to date, no gratuities have been paid from either the ministry or OSHA.

The contract of employment of­fered

to the workers stated gra­tui­ty and

vacation leave earned by staff pre­­vi­­ously employed by the ministry would be given following the tran­sition. 

Bec­kles-Robinson said: “I felt if the minister is aware of the matter, the chances may be different. Why would they not want to pay the gratuity?

“It is not politics. I felt it was some­thing that was necessary to do. I found it to be quite reasonable. At the end of the day, from where I sit, I felt if the minister is aware, he may want to instruct the PS to deal with matter. 

“Sometimes, when you are a poli­tician and also a lawyer, people tend to view things in a particular way.”

Bec­kles-Robinson said she ex­plained to the workers why she thought it was ne­cessary to commu­ni­cate with McLeod. 

“This is something I will have to learn from. I did not know by I saying that I would liaise with the minister would have been interpreted this way. 

“The workers never told me not to go that way. 

“It is something I will have to learn from,” Bec­kles-Robinson said. 

Bec­kles-Robinson said arrange­ments have been made to refund the $14,000 deposit to the workers next week. 

The workers were advised by Bec­kles-Robinson to make a deposit of $14,000 to commence legal pro­ceedings against the ministry, follow­ing its failure to adhere to the pre-action pro­tocol letter issued in October 2012. 

The pre-action protocol letters sent on behalf of the workers in October said: “I have been retained by my cli­ent to commence the appropriate legal proceedings against your au­thority 14 days after you have received this letter if you fail to pay my client the gratuity.”

However, Bec­kles-Robinson failed to com­mence legal proceedings as sta­ted in the first pre-action protocol letter. 

Instead, in March 2013, Bec­kles-Ro­binson sent a second batch of pre-action pro­­­tocol letters, indicating again the ministry had 14 days to respond. 

The sum of $3,500 was paid for issu­ance of the pre-action protocol letters. 

But according to Bec­kles-Robin­son, part of the delay was a request by the Office of the Solicitor General, asking for two-month extension to deal with the matter. 

Bec­kles-Robinson said she was also aware of a similar matter in another ministry where legal action was withdrawn by workers and a settlement was agreed upon. 

She said: “Court matters could go on and on. My perspective is that if you could avoid the cost of the liti­gation, it is better you do so. The mon­ey the workers paid to file the action was different from the money paid for the two pre-action protocol letters. 

“They paid a deposit of $2,000 each. A draft was done which they all saw and then I completed the actual document to be filed. There was one worker who was in Dubai and he would have kept back the filing for a short while. He came to Trinidad some time in August and he signed his documents. 

“My position was if you are going to court and they are aware that the State has asked for an extension, the issue will be why would you not grant the extension if there is a possibility of settling the matter.”

Bec­kles-Robinson said her objec­tive was to ensure whether the matter could be settled without the cost of litigation and the lengthy time-frame in the court when dealing with such matters. 

“I think that was a reasonable approach. I realised the workers did not agree with my approach and the granting of the two-month extension, so I have decided to return the deposit that was paid for commencement of the legal proceedings.   

“Notwithstanding the fact that I thought I approached the matter in the right way. 

“Yes, there were times they would text and I did not respond, but when­ev­er I got responses, they were informed. 

“The fact of the matter is that the money is owed and it is a lot of money

“They wanted things to move faster and sometimes, that is not how it is,” Bec­kles-Robinson said. 

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