One that got away

This Article was first published in the Trinidad Express Newspapers on November 16th 2017.

On Sunday last two businessmen from Toronto came to T&T to check out the investment scene, and find out whether T&T could accommodate an international IT communications center they wanted to set up.  One was a tall dour legal fellow, and the other a mainly silent finance man.  Something about our location being ideal for something involving satellite receptivity which I did not understand. Not that many employees, maybe around 300 the finance man said when I met them on Monday.

They had sent me an email two weeks before to set up the meeting, as professionals do. They wanted us to do the usual thing…what is called in the trade “a due diligence” on various organisations whose names they had been given by our consulate in Toronto; to ask about the consistency and implementation of our labour laws, and to enquire about the I.T. skill availabilities in the labour market here.

As originally agreed, the meeting took place, but it was abortive.

Having waited in line for two hours and thirteen minutes to get through immigration the day before at Piarco, they decided that any commonwealth country where the laws against civil servants striking was so easily flouted, was not a country where they wanted to invest money.

And they knew their laws. One of them was an international lawyer fully aware that in T&T, as in most Commonwealth countries certain categories of workers are forbidden to strike. They include:

–  a public officer, as defined by section 3 of the Constitution;

–  a member of the Defence Force or any ancillary force or service thereof, or of the Police, Fire or Prison Service or of the Police Service of any Municipality, or a person who is employed as a rural constable or estate constable;

While waiting in line they had heard that one of our local union leaders, who, they were told, was really a long-distance swimming, calypso singing politician looking for political power in both islands, had ordered his members to go on strike in the guise of taking an unapproved “vacation day”. He was careful not to specify the immigration officers though, also his members, who were claiming   some unpaid some overtime emoluments that had been in dispute from last year (see “public officers” in bullet point one above ). That would be illegal.

I do not know who was standing in line with them but while they were there they were told bitterly that some public officers in T&T would use any excuse not to work.

These irritated potential investors asked to see the legal definition of what constituted an illegal strike in our country. I didn’t want to do it. I really wanted to get the business. And I wanted to get those potential three hundred I.T.  jobs for Trinis, but my job requires me to be honest.

I explained that here it was called: ”industrial action” and “industrial action” is always illegal, except if  you followed certain guidelines..

That international lawyer looked down on me from his six foot something height and said “Show me!” So, I did, quoting the IRA by heart:

 “industrial action” means strikes and lockouts, and any action, including sympathy strikes and secondary boycotts (whether or not done in contemplation of, or in furtherance of, a trade dispute), by an employer or a trade union or other organisation or by any number of workers or other persons to compel any worker, trade union or other organisation, employer or any other person, as the case may be, to agree to terms of employment, or to comply with any demands made by the employer or the trade union or other organisation or by those workers or other persons, and includes action commonly known as a “sit-down strike”, a “go-slow” or a “sick-out”,

(ed. note It says ‘includes’, not ‘limited to’ The drafters knew their people)

“But civil servants are not allowed to strike anywhere in the Commonwealth” he protested! “Are you trying to tell me that it is legal here?” I had to admit that it was not, but when it happened, no one ever got punished, it appeared, or lost their jobs. Some of them might be scolded, though.

There is a distinction between enacting laws and implementing them. I explained. He just looked at me coldly.  I was embarrassed.

Then the finance person asked what the other officials that had withheld their labour were asking for, I said weakly that, according to the press it was being called “a protest action” by the politician/trade unionist/long distance swimmer to stop the government from establishing a T&T Revenue Authority, to stop tax evasion.

He just didn’t believe me. He had been told in Canada by a Trini expat lawyer that in T&T certain professionals in certain professions always got paid in cash or by Bitcoin or personal cheques and thus avoided tax. Mainly those in the medical industry as well as lawyers, entertainers and Band leaders, so as to avoid income tax. And Inland Revenue never came after them. “We have our ways” his informant had smirked. He asked sarcastically if non-compliance with tax laws was accepted as well as non-compliance with labour laws.

When I could not persuade them otherwise, they decided that T&T was not worth investing in. “There are international standards that our clients demand”, he pointed out acidly, and T&T could not meet them. Finance people are so difficult! They are going to Barbados.

I tried to change his mind, but he was carrying a newspaper with Headlines involving the C.J. so I gave up.

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