Ancel Roget

FLASHBACK: Oilfields Workers Trade Union president general, Ancel Roget, addresses workers of Petrotrin outside the Office of the Prime Minister in St Clair in August 2018, a few days after the Government took the decision to close down the refinery at Pointe-a-Pierre.

IN THE last 20 years, taxpayers have had to fund billions in Voluntary Separation of Employment Programme (VSEP) for employees after State enterprises were closed.

Among the companies that were closed and employees separated are Caroni (1975) Limited, British West Indies Airways (BWIA) and Petrotrin.

And, in the coming year, taxpayers will have to fork out more to cover WASA’s VSEP package, which is estimated at $600 million, as the organisation implements its new organisational plan.

The fate of employees of two other State entities—Lake Asphalt and the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (PATT)—is also up for discussion as the Ministry of Works and Transport is working on a new business plan for Lake Asphalt and PATT is looking for a private investor by 2023.

The common theme among the State enterprises was that instead of generating profits and contributing to the coffers of the country with taxes, they were actually a drain on the Treasury.

Taxpayers were not only propping up State enterprises but money was also used to pay VSEP packages to their employees.

And, in the case of BWIA, tax dollars were used to recapitalise a new entity, Caribbean Airlines.

But throughout the past 20 years, other state enterprises have been closed down- Caroni Green and Government Information Services (GISL).

Special purpose state companies such as SportTT- and Education Facilities Company Limited (EFCL) and the Estate Management Business Development Company Limited (EMBD) haemorrhaged millions in bad investments.

Other state enterprises have trimmed staff for efficiency.

Among them are the National Gas Company (NGC), the Telecommunication Services of T&T (TSTT) and the Water and Sewerage Authority of T&T (WASA).

So what has been the result of it?

Here’s where it stands:

Caroni (1975) Limited

Twenty years after Caroni (1975) was closed, leases to former Caroni workers, which were part of their Voluntary Separation Package (VSEP), are yet to be completed.

However, the Estate Management Business Development Company (EMBD), a special purpose state entity, which was vested with Caroni Lands, said that it is 95 per cent complete with 130 more to go.

In 2019, Caroni (1975) chairman Jerry Hospedales revealed that since the state-owned company closed down in 2003, the Government has spent $10 billion in “wrapping” it up.

Hospedales said that a large chunk of this money was spent on pensions, training courses, monetary benefits and residential and agricultural lands for former employees.

Petrotrin

In the case of Petrotrin, it was shut down and three companies—Heritage, Paria and Guaracara—set up with new balance sheets.

It cost state-owned Petrotrin just under $2 billion to close its refinery with the bulk of that sum used for the severance packages for its 2,500 permanent employees which was estimated at over $1.8 billion.

And that cost was exclusive of the billion dollar bond payout—Petrotrin had two bond payments due: a US$850 bullet payment due in August 2019 and a US$750 million amortising bond due in May 2022—which was guaranteed by the Government. Petrotrin owed about $3 billion in taxes and royalties to the state over the years.

Heritage and Paria are now profitable entities.

BWIA/ CAL

CAL’s birth came after the Government had invested US$250 million in an attempt to keep BWIA alive.

But based on a plan by its former chief executive, Englishman Peter Davies, the Government agreed to the creation of a new entity, CAL, and injected US$100 million for its recapitalisation. CAL was given a clean balance sheet, a leaner flight schedule, subsidised fuel (CAL had a fuel hedge set at US$50 a barrel) and a smaller staff.

CAL, which began debt free, made several bad investments over the years, which cost the company over $1 billion in losses.

In 2021, after the airline suffered financial losses because of T&T closed borders during the pandemic, it again had to retrench workers.

CAL cut 79 pilots as part of a 280-person job cut to streamline its operations.

The company subsequently issued a new release explaining that it was less than the projected 450 jobs it had intended to cut when the restructuring exercise began.

Finance Minister Colm Imbert had pegged the severance costs at $110 million to be paid by the T&T taxpayers, as there was to be no input from CAL’s minority shareholder, the Jamaica government.

It was the second staff adjustment the airline has had to make since the pandemic began in March 2020 as the country’s border closures affected its earnings.

In September 2020, CAL announced that it would temporarily lay off close to 600 employees in T&T and Jamaica for three months and there would be salary reductions for eight months,from October 15, 2020 to June 15, 2021, as the airline hoped to save around US$1.6 million a month.

CAL said it was applying these “temporary measures to support its recovery during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The Sunday Express had reported that CAL owed over a billion in liabilities yet according to its 2020 management accounts, dated December 2020, it has just US$28 million in cash.

TSTT

At the moment, both TSTT and WASA are undergoing restructuring exercises.

The theme throughout State enterprises is that they have been inefficient.

Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales has been vocal that both utilities need to be restructured.

In the case of TSTT, he said that it is fact that because of the impact of the global pandemic and the changing telecommunications environment, TSTT has lost hundreds of millions of dollars over the last two to three years.

“The company is now forced to make decisions if it wants to survive in a fast-paced environment. If it doesn’t make these decisions to become fit for purpose and embrace new technologies, it will have no choice but to close its doors.

“Therefore, the board and management have taken a decision to restructure the company in order that it remains a going concern for its shareholders,” he said.

On May 31, TSTT began a retrenchment exercise for 468 employees in an attempt to keep the company afloat.

For the financial year ending March 31, 2021, TSTT’s revenue fell by $453 million, or 18 per cent less than its 2020 financial year.

TSTT said the decline in revenue was partly due to issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic and a combination of economic and technologi¬cal factors unique to T&T, driven by the global digital revolution in telecommunications.

TSTT retrenched around 700 workers in 2018 due to complaints of $478 million financial loss and “high employee costs.”

Gonzales added: “I know it is a very stressful and difficult time for the employees and others who may be impacted, but given the informa¬tion I have as minister, I believe that the board and management must do what must be done to keep the TSTT ship sailing.”

WASA

Gonzales had told the Sunday Express that it will cost WASA $600 million in VSEP packages in the next year.

However, it will be up to the WASA board to determine the final exit packages for employees.

“It could be more or less,” he had said.

Gonzales told the Sunday Express that WASA is looking to the Ministry of Finance to fund the VSEP package.

Already, WASA survives in a subvention from the Government.

WASA’s chairman Ravi Nanga had told the Sunday Express that in 2020, the Government subsidised WASA $$1.5 billion, and in 2021, it disbursed $1.78 billion to it.

The cost to run WASA is about $2.5 billion annually, while its revenue is $800 million.

In a press conference last week, Gonzales said that some 213 managers at WASA face losing their jobs, as the utility seeks to cut its operating costs by 25 per cent in a bid to transform it.

Gonzales has said WASA’s 426-strong management team will be cut by 50 per cent and WASA’s entire top management would be replaced in July 2021.

State Enterprises

In the Review of the Economy state enterprises received $1,668.6 million in Current Transfers from the Government, a $577.9 million reduction from the $2,246.5 million transferred in the corresponding period of fiscal 2020.

It said that out of the $1,668.6 million in current transfers for the fiscal period ended June 2021, state enterprises received 50.8 percent or $847.4 million, whilst Public Utilities were allocated 49.2 percent or $821.2 million.

“This represented a material reduction of $262.9 million in the Central Government’s fiscal support to State Enterprises and a $314.9 million reduction in transfers to Public Utilities over the review period,” it said.

It said amongst all state enterprises, CAL received the largest fiscal injection from Central Government in the sum of $355.3 million, followed by UDECOTT and NIDCO receiving $255.0 million and $114.8 million respectively.

“Current transfers to UDeCOTT were however lower by $441.1 million, while CAL and NIDCO received additional boosts of $249.2 million and $63.4 million, respectively. As CAL grappled with the severe effects of the lockdown measures, Government provided support in the form of Current Transfers, which was used to meet its operational expenditure and loan interest payments. UDeCOTT’s Current Transfers were utilised for loan interest payments, as the company undertook projects on behalf of the Government,” it said.

“Due to the closure of the country’s borders as part of the country’s COVID- 19 mitigation measures, CAL recorded significant revenue losses amounting to $1,295.8 million, as incoming and outgoing flights were limited over the period,” it said.

It said that three non-energy state enterprises also received fiscal support during the nine-month period of fiscal 2021- The Trinidad and Tobago Solid Waste Management Company Limited (SWMCOL-$80.6 million; CreativeTT -$6.1 million; and VMCOTT -$5.7 million.

Concomitantly, the following eight Non-Energy companies reported a collective Operating Deficit of $216.0 million: NIDCO-$91.2 million; Trinidad and Tobago Mortgage Finance Company Limited (TTMF)-$60.3 million; the National Helicopter Services Limited (NHSL) -$18.3 million); the National Quarries -$17.8 million; Lake Asphalt -$10.2 million; VMCOTT-$6.9 million; Evolving Tecknologies and Enterprise Development Company Limited (e TecK)-$6.5 million); and CreativeTT-$4.8 million.

It noted that in the case of the MTS, despite recording an operating surplus, it recorded a notable decrease of $190.7 million in operational performance, thus contributing to the overall weakening in the cash operations of State Enterprises.

The review said the primary reasons for the $147.2 million improvement in the cash operations of Energy State Enterprises were the sizeable surpluses generated from the activities of Heritage Petroleum Company Limited (HPCL) ($1,332.3 million) and to a lesser extent, Trinidad Nitrogen Company Limited (TRINGEN) ($304.6 million).

“Also contributing was the lower deficit generated by the National Gas Company of Trinidad and Tobago Limited (NGC), which reduced by $371.9 million,” it said.

Farrel Report

In a 2016 report on the state of state enterprises, former central bank Governor had made a case for several state enterprises to close to stop being a burden on the Treasury.

The report had recommended that eight state enterprises be closed immediately- Taurus Services Limited, Vehicle Management Corporation, Solid Waste Management, CNMG, Export Centres Company Limited, National Commission for Self-Help, Government Human Resources Limited, Government Information Services Limited (this was closed).

Of those, the report considered that CNMG could be restructured as a Development Enterprise within the Arts Council and VMCOTT and SWMCOL could be divested.

It further suggested that eight be divested- VMCOTT, SWMCOL, National Petroleum (following a deregulation plan), National Quarries, First Citizens, Lake Asphalt, National Helicopter (which it suggested be divested to National Gas Company (NGC) and National Maintenance Training and Security Limited.

It posited that the Trinidad and Tobago Free Zones Company and the T&T International Financial Management Company, be retained within InvestTT.

“In the minds of many citizens, state enterprises are seen as mechanisms for the dispensing of political patronage, as inefficient and loss-making providers of services, or as providing employment for supporters of whichever party happens to form the Government,” was the opening statement of the report’s executive summary which was dated July 18, 2016.

“In the last ten years (2006-2016 when the report was written), there has been a dramatic escalation in failures of governance at state enterprises. BWIA was shut down and CAL took its place in 2006, but boy 2012, after the change of government and a new board installed, CAL was again embroiled in controversy. UDECOTT was the central concern of the Uff Commission of Enquiry into the Construction sector and the procurement practices of a number of state enterprises engaged in infrastructure development.

“Citizens have since seem millions of taxpayers’ dollars channeled through several state enterprises into projects of little or no merit or, where the project was inherently meritorious, a significant portion of the expenditure diverted in the form of cost overruns and otherwise wasted, The examples include: (1) LifeSport (Sports Company) (2) World GTL (Petrotrin) (3) Development of Caroni Lands (EMBD) and (4) Project ICON (GISL),” the report said.

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