The Association of Maxi Taxi School Transport Concessionaires (AMTSTC) is denying claims by Education Minister, Anthony Garcia, that it is using students as "pawns" in an effort to receive full payment of TT $11 million in outstanding fees.
AMTSTC President, Rodney Ramlogan, said maxi taxi drivers' children have also been affected by the delay in paying TT $12 million for services rendered in May, June and during the first two weeks of July.
"I don't know how the minister could say that. He's making it seem like only school children were affected but we have children too. Up to now, we can't even afford to buy school books and uniform to send them to school, so I don't know how (Garcia) could say we using school children as pawns."
Ramlogan was speaking to Newsday this evening about how a decision by AMTSTC members to withhold their services yesterday left a reported 30,000 primary and secondary school students stranded on the first day of the new school year. However this was disputed by the ministry, which cited data from School Supervisors in the seven education districts across Trinidad.
Chief Education Officer, Harrilal Seecharan, said a check of Government and Government-assisted schools revealed that "ten primary schools and 14 secondary schools were negatively impacted to some extent because of the disruption in the service. In some cases, several maxi taxi concessionaires doubled up (to ensure affected students get to school)."
Seecharan was speaking this afternoon during a press conference at the Education Ministry's head office, St Vincent Street, Port-of-Spain, where Education Minister, Anthony Garcia, criticised the association's actions.
"While I have absolutely no problem with any group of workers withholding their services; because that is their right, always remember that we must not use our children as pawns...Those maxi taxi drivers, if they had entered into discussions with me last night (Sunday), they would have been told that today (yesterday), a cheque for in excess of TT $6 million was forthcoming and later on this week, the remaining sum of (just under) $5 million would have been paid to them. There was absolutely no need, as far as I see it, to take the type of action that was taken," Garcia declared.
Management of the school bus system, including payments to drivers, is handled by the Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC). That's why the ministry issues cheques to the PTSC and not directly to the AMTSTC.
Garcia recalled that "sometime last week or the week before, we were able to give PTSC $1 million as part payment to maxi taxi drivers. Today (yesterday); and this is what I wanted to discuss with (Ramlogan), we made available to PTSC in excess of $6 million; so that is in excess of $7 million. "
The minister added that he was informed "by our Permanent Secretary that later this week," the remaining sum of just under $5 million will be paid.
This news did not appease the association. Ramlogan told Newsday that it's not simply about keeping their word to withhold service until full payment is received. "Financially we can't afford to go out to work; to buy fuel, repair maxis (and so on)."
Ramlogan added that a PTSC official called him around 2 pm today, informing him that "they had gotten some money to make part-payment but they weren't able to say how much of that would be paid to us."
Asked why, Ramlogan explained that the PTSC "takes out a management fee, so it's not necessarily true that the whole $6 million would go to us and even that is still short of a full payment."
Hence Ramlogan's firm stance that not only will association members continue to withhold services until all of the money owed is in their bank accounts. In addition, he told Newsday that more members are expected to do so from tomorrow (Tuesday).
While what's owed has led to protests by the AMTSTC, an allegation of ghost gangs was brought to Garcia's attention on Sunday evening.
Revealing this to the media for the first time today, Garcia said, "I was in a telephone conversation with a very senior official of the (AMTSTC) last night, (who) expressed the view that the ministry should perform an audit of that system."
The minister said the man told him, "There are a number of ghost maxi taxi drivers who are being paid without providing the service."
"I don't have the information (but) it is something that I think merits an investigation. I am not casting any aspersions on anybody," Garcia cautioned before saying the allegation is "cause for concern because in this country, ghost gangs and ghost workers seem to be a thing that we have to deal with almost on a daily basis."
The minister assured that he "will investigate" the claims of ghost gangs in the school bus programme.