The death of a former Petrotrin worker last month by his own hands, attributed by relatives and the union to his inability to cope with loss of his job, has re-focused attention on the Government’s inadequate impact assessment and post-closure services to workers prior to the dramatic folding of the State company.
Dr Varma Deyalsingh, secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Psychologists (TTAP), has echoed the words of many during those heady days leading to the closure of the oil company last November 30 and added a professional, clinical assessment of the emotional impact on former workers, their families, friends and country.
His analysis is not unique. Literature on the impact of job loss on individuals, families and communities is consistent in its elaboration of anxieties, depression, substance abuse, feelings of shame and low self-worth, especially for men—who dominated the oil industry—who are socialised to evaluate their self-worth in financial and career terms.
Research studies have shown that in addition to depression and anxiety disorders, unemployed people also manifest physical symptoms of headaches, fatigue, short tempers and a variety of medical illnesses, pointing to further pressure on already oversubscribed public health services.
Intimate relationships, the ever-important mental and physical health of the family unit are deeply affected. Spouses may blame each other for not cutting spending, not going back to work soon enough, or not foreseeing this happening and finding another job in time. Some deal with stress by increasing alcohol intake or converting stress into anger, leading to increases in spousal arguments, domestic violence, health and legal problems. Increasing financial stress or transition also exacerbates pre-existing marital and relationship problems. Stress, increased responsibilities, and obsessing over finding a job can also increase marital arguments or lead to lack of communication if one or both spouses shut down and withdraw emotionally.
Addressing the effects of unemployment on thousands of former Petrotrin workers is a task that requires input from various sectors. Dr Deyalsingh encourages those in need to seek out the public services at the 27 psychiatric clinics across the country. There is also a role for the new post-Petrotrin entities that cannot, morally, turn their backs on former workers. But there is also a role for the OWTU, recognised bargaining unit for those workers for as long as the refinery has been State-owned.
Services for members and former members of the union, beyond collective bargaining, have been a matter unions have not addressed sufficiently over the years following the 1980s. In the current circumstances, the OWTU cannot deposit wholesale the needs of former workers on the doorsteps of the Government and Heritage Petroleum alone. The union has to assume some responsibility, even if referral services alone, for the care of the thousands who find themselves sudden casualties.