By Capil Bissoon
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar walked the talk last week on the promise of consultation, and met with leaders of the business community, stakeholders in the energy sector and 17 trade unions, including the Public Services Association (PSA), which represents the majority of workers in the public service.
Sadly, the Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM), led by Ancel Roget, refused to attend on the spurious argument the invitation was improper and insulting. In effect, Roget placed his personal political agenda ahead of the workers’ interests in the same way David Abdulah, who had a seat inside the administration, walked away from the best opportunity he had to seek the interest of workers.
Mrs Persad-Bissessar was genuine in her proactive approach to meeting with these different stakeholder groups before heading to Washington, DC, for talks on energy matters with US Vice President Joe Biden. In each session, she outlined her Government’s position and listened to the views and concerns of the respective groups, hoping the exchange of ideas would lead to finding the right answers to deal with the changed economic situation due to the dramatic fall in the price of oil since November last year.
Having heard from each group, she has taken action to deal with key matters raised. Such a position is unprecedented and has demonstrated the kind of leadership that moves a country forward.
While critics have been quick to label it as a PR exercise, it is clear this is a sincere attempt at initiating a continuing dialogue with business, labour and Government.
During previous periods of crises, both the People’s National Movement and National Alliance for Reconstruction governments used a “slash and burn” approach—cutting salaries, raising taxes and reducing the labour force. Even today, Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley is talking about deep cuts that would hurt the people and take away crucial social benefits.
So far with all the temptations and suggestions from the Opposition to cut back on the social safety net, Mrs Persad-Bissessar has stood firm in her resolve to protect the most vulnerable and to keep everyone employed.
The Government’s declared policy is to save through delaying major infrastructure projects and reducing expenditure in every ministry and department while protecting vital programmes.
That approach demonstrates a kind of caring and compassion we have never seen in any government of Trinidad and Tobago. The willingness of stakeholder groups to meet and share ideas with the country’s leader is a strong endorsement of her style of leadership as well as the people-centred policies she has been able to maintain since taking office.
While each group would naturally have its private and personal agenda or even political position, each agreed to put that aside for the greater national good, except JTUM and Mr Roget.
This would have been a splendid opportunity to air the concerns of JTUM and the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) in a semi-public forum, especially since those views would have been recorded and likely taken up in Washington during the energy meeting taking place today.
But Roget’s ego and his politics are too strong to sit face-to-face with the lady he has maligned all over Trinidad and Tobago, pledging in 2012 to bring down her Government, “no progress, no development, no industrial peace…strikes, more strikes and more strikes; when the time is right the country will come to a screeching halt”, he promised.
Through good leadership and sound fiscal management, the Persad-Bissessar Administration is nowhere near where Roget wants it to be. But he remains fixed in his position. Instead of representing the people who pay him a big fat salary and benefits, he prefers his unilateral pronouncements without any regard for the membership of his union and the JTUM.
If he wants to be honest, Roget would admit the Persad-Bissessar administration has been the most labour-friendly ever. Since taking office, the People’s Partnership Government has settled 87 outstanding collective agreements, it has raised the minimum wage twice, which now stands at $15 per hour, and has never taken any anti-labour position.
What we witnessed is vintage Kamla. She involved, discussed, listened and included—all hallmarks of her consensual, participatory and inclusive style of bringing all parties to the table, empowering them and giving them a stake in the country’s future. Contrast that with the style of Dr Rowley, which on the surface appears to be autocratic and based not on the perspectives of many, but the views of one man.
Trinidad and Tobago is fortunate to have the present leadership at this time of economic instability. Mrs Persad-Bissessar and her team remain calm and focused, putting people first as they deals with the current situation professionally and efficiently.