PORT OF SPAIN –– Even as workers from the Beetham landfill downed tools Monday morning to protest the non-payment of arrears, Public Utilities Minister Ancil Antoine assured he was working to rectify the matter urgently.
Asked to respond to the demands of the Industrial General and Sanitation Workers Union (IGSWU) that the action would continue until the workers receive the outstanding monies, Antoine revealed he had spoken to Finance Minister Colm Imbert about the matter as recently as Saturday, when the two attended the funeral service for former prime minister Patrick Manning.
Antoine said: “I approached the Minister of Finance and spoke to him on the matter. I am now awaiting the release of money to pay the workers.”
He said Monday morning he instructed the ministry’s permanent secretary to “resend the letters to the Ministry of Finance regarding the release of money to pay these workers.”
Antoine had “no idea” about how long that could take.
Faced with the possibility that the situation could continue until the money is paid, Antoine said garbage and dump trucks had the choice to go to the Forres Park or Guanapo landfills in the interim.
Meanwhile, police officers turned away garbage and dump trucks Monday as the drivers began lining the west-bound lane of the Beetham Highway after the workers congregated in front of the main gate to protest the non-payment of the arrears.
The workers began gathering from as early as 6 am forcing truck drivers to seek alternative instructions from their bosses.
Unlike several weeks ago when the action led to a major traffic pile-up, police officers acted swiftly to ensure there were no barriers to impede the motoring public as drivers slowed to watch the protestors, with some shouting out positive messages to the group.
Standing firm with the workers, president of the IGSWU, Robert Benacia, said they were tired of Government’s “lies and deceptions.”
He added: “The workers have decided they will continue the protest until Government sends word through the company (Solid Waste Management Company Limited) that they are ready to improve the working conditions and pay outstanding arrears.”
Estimating that the 250 current and former employees were owed approximately $9 million, Benacia said operations at the Beetham landfill were severely affected.
Benacia added: “These essential service workers are only asking to be paid what is owed to them.”
Acknowledging that SWMCOL “wanted to do the right thing by the workers,” Benacia said they too were being misled by Government.
Asked to explain, Benacia said: “They are being told certain things and when that is communicated to the workers, it turns out to be lies.”
Indicating that the demand for improved conditions was due more in part to the lack of funding from Government and not a reluctance by SWMCOL to effect changes, Benacia said the workers could no longer operate with malfunctioning toilets, the lack of a pipe-borne water supply and a building that was falling apart but also infested with mosquitoes and pigeons.
The collective bargaining agreement was signed on June 5, 2015 with officials of the previous People’s Partnership administration for the period 2011 to 2013.
The payment of the outstanding arrears was promised by November 30, 2015.
Benacia said the workers had encountered financial hardship as some had taken loans and were owing creditors and that the settlement would mean a new lease on life for the 120 daily-paid workers.