The 21st century has seen the trade union movement in Trinidad and Tobago consistently under attack, severely criticised and victimised by the ruling economic and political elites.
The thousands of sugar workers were the first group of organised workers this century to suffer mass retrenchment. This, of course, has had the effect of severely weakening a once powerful union.
The unions in the petroleum and petrochemical industries have seen a steady decline in their workforce. Thousands of direct and indirect Petrotrin workers have been thrown on the breadline as have hundreds of workers at ArcelorMittal and hundreds at TSTT.
Jobs are disappearing at an accelerated rate in the light and heavy manufacturing industry. Manufacturing enterprises throughout the East-West Corridor have been shedding jobs and capital is being shifted into warehousing and distribution. Unilever is a stark example.
The ports are being privatised which will result in retrenchment. 2,500 workers are earmarked for retrenchment at WASA. The Public Service and the regional health authorities are now places of low-paid, fixed-term contract workers. The State sector is in decline and dying quickly. They are coming at National Petroleum, Trinidad Lake Asphalt, the regional and City corporations, MTS, PTSC, TTEC and other unionised State sector enterprises.
Capitalism has acquired free rein and the changing composition of the working class has reduced the unionised workforce drastically. Best guesstimates suggest that 12 per cent or less of the workforce may be union members. This is borne out by the fact that 90 per cent or more of matters that come before the Industrial Court do not involve members of recognised majority unions.
There are hundreds of thousands of workers in the service sector, retail stores, fast food joints, the hospitality sector and the private security sector who are not unionised and have no tradition of organised struggle.
This has resulted in workers being super-exploited, with atrocious industrial relations practices becoming the norm. Fixed-term contracts are the order of the day. The casualisation of labour is a growing trend and companies are ducking out of paying NIS and Government taxes by deeming workers to be independent contractors.
Extreme exploitation of minimum wage and sub-minimum wage workers is the norm. Sub-minimum workers are denied the legal provisions of the schedule of minimum wages and conditions. Domestic workers are denied the entitlements of other workers. Worst of all are the conditions in the private security industry, particularly so for non-precepted security personnel.
The Estate Police Association is doing a great job of protecting, defending and advancing the interests of precepted officers, but are restricted by law from representing non-precepted officers.
In a majority of cases in the private security industry conditions include:
• non-unionised, non-precepted workers denied conditions as legislated in the Minimum Wages Act. These include issues of wages, overtime, working hours, sick leave, vacation leave, which many workers report is a “thing of the past”.
• Non-receipt of payslips detailing wages and statutory deductions.
• NIS not being deducted.
• NIS being deducted and not remitted to the NIB.
• Arbitrary and unexplained deductions from wages.
• In some companies, security officers have to pay what is called a bond when they are hired, which is really one month’s pay held by the company and which is not repaid when they leave the company.
• In some companies, workers must pay for their uniforms, but must return them when they leave employment.
• There is gross violation of all best practices concerning shift hours with particular emphasis on sentry duty. Workers work extraordinarily long hours (as much as 36 and 48 hours without relief) without subsistence allowances and are exposed to abnormal health, sanitary and personal and property safety issues.
• Failure to comply with these unsafe, unhealthy and slave-like orders quite often leads to unfair and unjust disciplinary actions by the employer.
• Workers are subjected to ridiculous fines for amazingly trivial offences. This is really a means of recouping labour costs, by using these fines as a revenue earning/cost saving mechanism.
• Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation: there are problems with Personal Protective Equipment, (including at state enterprises), already long hours have increased as much as 36- and 48-hour shifts; there are serious problems with transportation to and from worksites; workers with children are under strain.
The future of the trade union movement lies in organising these hundreds of thousands of minimum and sub-minimum wage workers. The trade union federations, JTUM, NATUC and FITUN and individual unions must urgently devise a campaign to organise these workers and launch a battle to ensure that they enjoy as decent conditions of work as is possible under a capitalist system.
In the words of Cecil Paul: “We, in the labour movement, must ensure working people do not end up weak, exploited and in a crime-ridden society where both labour and lives are cheap and in steady regression, sinking more and more into a hell-hole for the dispossessed.”
Failure to do so will result in the relevance of the trade union movement becoming a faint memory in the minds of working people.
National education and research officer
National Workers Union