History lecturer: Trade unions begging for scraps

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Feature speaker and senior lecturer at UWI, Dr.Jerome Teelucksingh, speaks about maintaining the interest of the working class in Rienzi’s time and today at the Adrian ‘Cola’ Rienzi Annual Labour Day Forum held at Government Quarters in Couva on June 13. – Photo by Venessa Mohammed

“Why are we begging like dogs for scraps?”

Historian and senior lecturer at UWI Dr Jerome Teelucksingh posed the question at the Adrian “Cola” Rienzi Memorial Forum on June 13.

Teelucksingh, who is also a Newsday columnist, said modern-day working conditions paralleled those Rienzi fought against during TT’s precolonial era.

Rienzi (born Krishna Deonarine) was a trade unionist and lawyer who advocated for workers’ rights, Indo-Trinidadian rights, public servants, cremation rights, Hindu/Muslim marriage recognition and non-Christian schools.

“Unemployment, low wages, poor housing, unsafe working conditions and neglect by the colonial government: these were the conditions of the working class of 1920 and 1930s. They endured exploitation and racism.

“In 2024, many of our citizens still live in these horrible conditions.”

He said many regularly face additional burdens such as flooding.

Teelucksingh, referring to the deaths of four of five divers in 2022, when they were sucked into a 36-inch Paria pipeline, and the death of Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) employee Kern Etienne, who was buried alive under a mound of dirt, said Occupational Health and Safety Authority (OSHA) breaches can no longer be tolerated.

He urged trade union leaders to unite, set aside ethnic divisions, and uphold the militant spirit of past leaders like Rienzi and Butler.

Labour leader Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler led the 1930s movement to improve conditions of the working class.

“Labour has allowed race or ethnicity to split the movement. We see it all the time for voting, and we will see it again in 2025.

“It’s a fact that governments no longer respect the labour movement. Governments in the Caribbean and Latin America do not respect the working class.”

He said he was pleased to see Couva South MP Rudranath Indarsingh and the Public Service Authority (PSA) calling for the immediate firing of WASA’s board.

Teelucksingh criticised the silence of trade unions during scandals such as the death ofseven neonates in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at the Port of Spain General Hospital in April.

“Where were the voices of labour?” he asked. “Those were working-class mothers who could not afford expensive private care to ensure their babies had a chance of survival.”

He questioned the optimistic reports by the Central Statistical Office (CSO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the strength of TT’s economy.

“Don’t let them fool ya, or even try to school ya!” he warned, quoting Bob Marley.

Teelucksingh’s warning follows the June 5 IMF country report which said TT is recovering economically for the first time in a decade.

The report praised the government’s fiscal policies in the non-energy sector, effective debt management, diversification efforts, tax regime strengthening, and a climate and green energy agenda.

Citing the National Investment Fund Holding’s $2 billion loss in 2023 and the recent Auditor General’s report on the 2023 public accounts, Teelucksingh said the CSO and IMF reports are not a true reflection of the resilience of TT’s economy.

He warned against being misled by positive economic reports and empty promises.

“Everything is expensive in TT: food prices, the cost of owning a home, buying a good car continue to increase. Extremely expensive.

“There is one thing that is very cheap in our country. Talk. Talk is cheap.

“Do you know what else is cheap? Smokescreens and red herrings to fool the public.”

On labour disputes, Teelucksingh highlighted complaints from TTPost employees who claimed they were “overworked and underpaid.”

“The TTPost workers highlighted several issues affecting them, including a settlement in overdue wage negotiations for the period 2014-2016 based on a job evaluation done in 2010.”

He described the protests by port workers in February as “a warning note over the government’s tardiness in settling an agreement the Seamen and Waterfront Workers’ Trade Union (SWWTU) has with Port Authority management to pay a 12 per cent wage increase for the 2014-2017 period.”

Teelucksingh said the Chief Personnel Officer’s (CPO) proposal of a zero per cent increase was “particularly insulting” and not “fair labour practice.”

“Something has to be wrong in a country that was once so wealthy with oil and sugar, yet the CPO is offering zero per cent. Not even half or a quarter. Zero. I have zero tolerance for that insulting offer.”

He questioned why trade unionists have to consistently “beg like a dog for scraps.”

“And yet amidst the offers of zero per cent, our country still gets a positive rating from the IMF.”

Teelucksingh argued the minimum wage of $20.50 per hour is insufficient, especially when many Venezuelan migrants are paid less than the legal minimum.

“Hopefully the citizens would not have to wait for ten or 12 years before the Minimum Wages Board makes another increase in the wage limit.”

He questioned the effectiveness of the Industrial Relations Advisory Committee (IRA) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), criticising them for their perceived inaction in the face of ongoing labour struggles.

“If Rienzi was alive, he would probably ask, ‘Why why is the ILO quiet whilst trade unions and the working class suffer in areas (such) as Ukraine and Gaza?’

“Is the IRA a leash to ensure the barking dogs of labour do not bite?”

While Teelucksingh addressed internal issues within the labour movement, he pointed out a poor work ethic among some workers and the resulting economic impact cannot be ignored.

“I cannot (only) be attacking the government and the private sector for mistreating workers. The blame also rests on those who do not have a proper work ethic. Poor work ethic in the national labour force has been consistently ranked in successive competitive reports as being among the most problematic factors facing TT.”

Teelucksingh called for a return to the foundational principles of trade unionism, emphasising the importance of solidarity and sacrifice.

“Never compromise the foundations of trade unionism that Rienzi and Butler built. Don’t water down or dilute trade unionism.”

He pleaded with union leaders to not betray the movement, telling them to not get into the back pockets of politicians.

“Do not prostitute yourself. Don’t keep on blaming the Westminster system. Look within the labour movement and heal our divisions.”

Teelucksingh begged present union leaders to never forget the sacrifices of those who came before them: “Elma Francois and Albert Gomes. The men and women with spines.”

At the forum were Ancel Lemessy, assistant secretary of the southern division Fire Services Association; Joanne Ogeer, secretary general of the Communication Workers’ Union; Timothy Bailey, president of the Steel Workers’ Union and Gerard Gordon, president of the Prison Officers’ Association.