THE Minister of Labour and Small Enterprise Development, Jennifer Baptiste-Primus, was allowed to inherit a bad rap by her colleagues in the Cabinet. Perhaps with an inkling of the manner in which she would be neglected and forsaken by them, she was among those who indicated early enough her desire not to overstay her welcome.
At this year’s Labour Day celebrations in Fyzabad, the minister was again lambasted. She was criticised for allegedly not bringing a single amendment to any piece of labour legislation to Parliament. She was said to have failed to give assistance to labour issues.
True, the minister, a former trade union leader—she was head of the Public Services Association—and someone who spent the five years prior to her selection to the Rowley Cabinet in 2015 as a radio talk-show host and industrial relations officer of the People’s National Movement, had promised a lot, given her highly public profile between 2010 and 2015.
She went into the job singing the tripartite song as though it were virgin territory. She dismantled the Social Dialogue Task Force which had been established by her ministerial predecessor, the more seasoned Errol Mc Leod. She founded an entity called the National Tripartite Advisory Council (NTAC), comprising essentially the same set of players as on the task force. But the NTAC failed to get far off the ground, based on actions of her Cabinet colleagues. First, it was the indecency of the manner in which the then Tourism Development Company was shut down. And then it was other matters coming before it which led to the withdrawal of enthusiasm by some of its principal players.
The minister never really recovered from that. But she continued to work hard. In a full-page newspaper advertisement which her team put out in the wake of this year’s Labour Day celebrations, you could feel the heartache in her plea for public understanding. She was left holding the bag by a Cabinet that clearly had other priorities, higher than fixing the country’s labour relations laws.
For myself, I had been hung up on what I sensed was the minister’s fixation with the issue of the laws governing contract work in the public service. She went into the job with that as one issue she wanted to wrestle to the ground, having been familiar with the tangled web it causes from her time in the leadership of the PSA. She spoke disapprovingly about it during a consultation at the Hilton in April 2016, mere months after assuming office. A report was produced from the workshop and a report by a Cabinet-appointed team studying the matter was submitted to the Cabinet in May 2017.
From a total of 15 separate stakeholder sessions she held while in office over these five years, involving more than 1,600 representatives of related organisations, the minister reported on each of them regarding action taken from her end.
A policy position paper on the Retrenchment and Severance Benefits Act was submitted to the Cabinet in January 2017. One on the Co-operative Societies Act was submitted in May 2017. Another on the foreign labour contracts law in June 2019, and a National Workplace Policy on Sexual Harassment submitted to Parliament on March 8, 2019.
These facts were being showcased while she was being undeservedly pilloried in Fyzabad on Labour Day.
At one point, after having presented some of this work for the attention of the Attorney General, the minister was reported as saying how much she understood his workload to be heavy. She pleaded nevertheless, for him to expend some time and effort in addressing those matters having to do with her own portfolio on behalf of the workers of the country.
No minister should have to plead in public for the Attorney General to include her work in the Government’s legislative agenda. It should not be left up to the Attorney General to decide which pieces of legislation get priority for the attention of Parliament.
That Minister Baptiste-Primus was forced to come to the country to present her work agenda, with so many items left effectively unattended, and in the Cabinet inbox, speaks volumes for this administration’s lack of fidelity with the objectives governing the work environment for thousands of people.
Jennifer Baptiste-Primus was made a scapegoat by those around her, judging from her Labour Day report to T&T.
The Cabinet agenda failed her miserably, and therefore failed the country’s workers significantly. This says nothing about the feelings of those professionals who would have contributed their time, effort and expertise in the formulation of reports and papers left unattended by the country’s ultimate public administration decision-makers. It is, for many, just part of the price to be paid for public service.
• Andy Johnson is a veteran journalist