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.