This article was originally published by the Sunday Guardian by a guest author. It was subsequently republished by the Energy Chamber


Less elitism, more pragmatism

The trick is old hat now. Whenever OWTU leader Ancel Roget wants to stir things up a bit, he will accuse the ‘elites’ of conspiracies and actions to hurt the rest of the country.

Right on cue, as the tenures of five Industrial Court judges have come to their end, Mr Roget summoned the press to denounce what he sees as a ploy by the government to starve the court of resources.

He went beyond that. For him, there is a wider conspiracy against the court, by ‘powerful elites’ determined to strip the court of its independence and remove ‘certain’ judges.

Of all people, Mr Roget should know better. Or perhaps he does and pretends not to. There has always been rotation of judges in the Industrial Court because they occupy the position for fixed periods. Changes in the composition of the Industrial Court occur because of that, not because of some dreamt up conspiracy by the ‘elites’.

If really interested in having a more efficient Industrial Court, Mr Roget could start by working with his fellow union leaders to reduce the amount of baseless grievances regularly brought to the Industrial Court as part of the unions’ strategy of attrition.

Most are eventually dropped, as they are lodged solely for leverage against businesses by overloading their HR departments with work and increasing their costs. But, by then, the case will have also added to the workload of the court itself, potentially delaying more deserving cases. Next time Mr Roget complains about delays at the Industrial Court, he should remember the many pointless disputes often brought to the court by the unions themselves.

Then there is his obsession with elites. That’s perhaps because it takes one to know one. Union leaders seem to conveniently forget that the pay they get, the perks of the role (cars and other benefits), their VIP treatment, their direct access to the powerful all the way to the Prime Minister, and their direct line to all major media houses are all the traits of elite members.

But populist elites can be very deceptive. They pretend to have nothing whilst living with the trappings of money and power, often paid twice – by the company they nominally work for and by the union itself. And when in trouble with the courts – like when Mr Roget was found guilty for lying and made to pay compensation for the damage he caused to the reputation of a former senior HR manager at NP – the union picks up the tab for them. They speak the language of their pre-independence predecessors, who really had to fight hard, often finding themselves in jail, but actually live the life of the powerful and entitled.

Mr Roget is right, though, when he says there are people who want changes to not only the Industrial Court but to the whole industrial relations framework in Trinidad and Tobago.

And this is not because of a conspiracy by elites gathering in the dark of the night, determined to make life hell for every worker on the land, as Mr Roget may fantasise about. It is because, without change, we won’t have much of a chance to remain competitive and be successful in the digital era.

Over the past few years, we saw what happened to our refining capacity, to our steel production and to the construction of exploration rigs. They very much came to an end due to, in part, irresponsive and often aggressive union behaviour.

That had nothing to do with the number of judges at the Industrial Court or elitist conspiracies. But it had a lot to do with the arrogance and aloofness of a pampered leadership that no longer seems to know what a working person in Trinidad and Tobago really needs or thinks.

In reality, if labour movement leaders really wanted to tackle elitism in our society, they could begin by proposing at least one fundamental change to our current industrial relations laws: the removal of the monopoly unions have to take workers’ cases to the Industrial Court.

That would represent a huge step in democratising access to the court whilst also making it easier for non-unionised workers to seek justice. They should also be campaigning much harder for equality in the workplace (including union offices) so that no one can be discriminated against or harassed because of their race, religion, disability and sexuality.

By and large, elites don’t like changes as the status quo is usually good for them (or they wouldn’t be elites in the first place). That explains why union leaders like Mr Roget are so reluctant to engage in the debate over the future of our industrial relations laws in a positive and imaginative way.

For them, life is a lot easier and better in the fantasy world of conspiracies than the reality of a country in desperate need of fresh ideas to stimulate growth and secure a bright future for generations to come. And that’s everyone’s loss.