PORT OF SPAIN –– The Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) says it is not too late for government to avert a strike at the State-owned oil company Petrotrin.
President General of the union Ancel Roget told the T&T Guardian that the power is in the government’s hands to avert the strike.
To do this, he said, the government must make an offer for the outstanding negotiating period 2011-2014 which is “now in conciliation at the Industrial Court”.
“We want the first negotiation resolved. If that is addressed we will deal with the other negotiation after,” he said.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley told the media on Wednesday that it was “only reasonable” that the government await the outcome of the matter before the Industrial Court with respect to the collective agreement for Petrotrin workers for the 2011-2014 period.
But Roget said it is government and Petrotrin to fix that problem. He said the matter is “before the court in conciliation and the court has been asking Petrotrin to get some directive from its principal (the Minister of Finance) on the matter, so that we can have something to work with. But as it stands now it is 0/0/0. That is not an offer.”
Rowley has indicated that even a one per cent increase would cost Petrotrin millions. In response, Roget said, “we are not asking for millions. We are just asking for workers just due. Petrotrin workers make a valuable contribution to the national economy.”
Roget said it was because of the political fall-out with the former People’s Partnership government that the negotiation ended up at the Industrial Court.
Petrotrin and the OWTU were scheduled to return to the Industrial Court later Friday and Roget said Justice Albert Aberdeen has indicated that he is “willing to work through the weekend to resolve this matter in the national interest. But the court has no offer from Petrotrin”.
He said it is “not impossible for Petrotrin to make an offer to settle the matter even though it is before the Industrial Court”.
Last December, the OWTU and T&TEC had a matter before the Industrial Court, Roget said, “the government moved to settle that, because it was shortly after the Minister of Finance made his now infamous statement at the IMF meeting about zero, zero, zero and there was a backlash.”
Asked whether it is unusual for companies to begin negotiations for a new bargaining period even though there is an unresolved negotiation before the Industrial Court, industrial relations consultant Diana Mahabir-Wyatt told the T&T Guardian: “It is a way to avoid a strike, particularly when a total strike will mean a total shutdown and therefore a lack of production and therefore a drop in income and profit.”
Roget said the strike notice served on Petrotrin “is really our way of putting the clock on them, letting them know that they have to settle one of the negotiations. Settle the 2011-2014 and let us move on”, he said.
He described public criticism of the action taken by the union against the company as “unfair”. Roget said when one takes into account “the risk to life and limb workers in the oil industry have to face, no one should begrudge them the wages they earn”.
According to Roget “public officers and other sectors cannot compare themselves to men who working near the cat-cracker”.
He said four workers lost their lives in 1985 during an explosion at that unit.
Although the offer on the table is zero, he said the company continues to “waste money”.
According to Roget “they paying 30,000 pounds sterling a month to house four expats in houses in the west, the President’s salary is over $170,000 a month, and one has to ask what did the former President of Petrotrin pay himself? And now they saying they have no money to pay workers who risk their lives and limbs? Who want to vex, let them vex. If this is not settled we will strike. The oil worker is making a significant contribution to the national economy and deserves to be paid,” he said.
Roget also dismissed the position by the Finance Minister that Petrotrin had entered into the negotiations “unilaterally”, and he only became aware of it in the media.
According to Roget, the collective agreement had expired and under the law the union could have filed an industrial relations offence, if the company had failed to meet with them to begin negotiations.
He said it was the union who initiated the negotiation presenting 17 proposals to the company for the collective bargaining period, “the company’s response was zero, zero, zero, we had one meeting and then we had no further discussion, we reported a breakdown at the Ministry of Labour and they intervened.”
There were four conciliation meetings at the Ministry of Labour, “at those meetings the company was firm on its offer of zero for each of the three years.”
Once 14 days of conciliation expired, he said, the union could initiate strike action, which it did.
Petrotrin President Fitzroy Harewood was unavailable for comment as he was engaged in a series of meetings.