|The ArcelorMittal steel plant at Point Lisas (Express Photo)|
"A real tragedy." That’s how Labour Minister Jennifer Baptiste-Primus summed up a decision by ArcelorMittal to suddenly close its steel plant at Point Lisas, putting hundreds of employees out of work.
The company pulled the plug one day after the Industrial Court imposed a fine on the company for breach of good industrial relations practice in temporarily sending home hundreds of its workers in December and again in February this year.
The minister admitted that ArcelorMittal tried to meet with her but that she was too busy to hold any talks with them. Obviously the minister, who is a seasoned trade unionist, failed to see the big picture and understand the danger in pushing around a multinational.
She could have taken a cue from her boss, Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley, who saw it fit to meet with the board of one of the region’s biggest conglomerates. Unlike the ANSA McAL group, ArcelorMittal has no roots in our country and like every multinational, it puts its financial and shareholder interests above those of any country.
|PM Keith Rowley met with the ANSA McAL board recently to discuss economic matters|
The company felt uncomfortable with the excessive push back and decided to leave. And it made that very clear in announcing its departure. Perhaps the clearest message to the government of Trinidad and Tobago was that local and international challenges had put it under severe financial distress since the second half of 2015.
It also signaled that new policy issues contributed to its decision to close shop – issues such as proposed rate increases for gas and electricity, proposed increases to port rental fees, property taxes and business levies, all of which contributed to the “unsustainability” of the business. Perhaps if there was some form of constructive two-way dialogue the story would have had a different ending.
The company had apparently been struggling since 2009 but policy measures taken by the new administration became the straw that broke its back.
While the workers should have been celebrating a victory they discovered the flip side of taking on a multinational without careful consideration of the consequences for workers and the country.
Now 700 people and their dependents have no income beyond the one month’s pay they will receive in lieu of notice of closure of the company.
|Workers demonstrate in Port of Spain|
But it goes beyond that. Every worker contributes in some small measure to keeping the economic wheels turning. Quite apart from PAYE they put money into state coffers with every purchase, from buying coffee to purchasing cars and homes.
Their economic health sustains shops and other businesses that in turn pay their share to keep the economy moving.
So when 700 people have no jobs you can safely multiply that by four or five and suddenly we find more than three thousand people - and thousands more – are directly affected, including workers at industries that depend on the steel company for survival.
Eric Williams found out a very long time ago that multinationals were not good for the national economy because while they paid taxes and hired workers their first priority was never to the country or their workers.
Today we are seeing that clearly. Whatever the fault of the company, the union pushed too hard instead of dealing with some legitimate concerns like chronic absenteeism of between 10 and 13 per cent and a poor work ethic.
So the company retaliated by just shutting the doors and walking away. This is the same company that took control of that Point Lisas plant that was costing the government of Trinidad and Tobago more than one million dollars a day in subsidy and within a year turned it around and made a profit without laying off a single worker and without altering workers’ terms of employment.
Could there have been a compromise? Perhaps. But it appears that it is too late. The minister didn’t care to talk with the company and now the prime minister’s attempt at dialogue seems like a feeble case of bad public relations.
What has happened is only the fever that manifests itself when there is some deeper infection. And the infection is in the form of a cancer that started eating away at the country’s economic base after September 07, 2015.
The steel giant is not the only one that’s reacting to new state policy initiatives. Other companies are feeling the effect and downsizing or just quitting. There is no final figure on how many workers have been laid off or fired since last September since the numbers keep growing every day.
And it’s not only in the private sector. The state has been sending home workers almost on a daily basis and although the government will say otherwise it is common knowledge that many who have lost their jobs since last September have been politically victimized.
And it’s far from over.
It is indeed a tragedy, but one that was scripted by government policies that never considered the people factor.
Ancel Roget had planned to undermine the previous government by causing industrial unrest aimed at bringing the country to a halt. He failed. But the new administration seems to have done a great job at doing it all on its own while Roget, David Abdulah et al remain silent.
Jai Parasram | 12 March 2016