A protest occurred this morning by the Association of Maxi Taxi School Transport Concessionaires (AMTSTC) outside the Education Ministry's head office, St Vincent Street, Port-of-Spain, over millions of dollars in unpaid fees.
Although the ministry recently made part payment of the TT$12 million owed for services May, June and the first half of July 2017, the association is adamant that it must receive full payment before resuming work.
Today's protest follows AMTSTC members yesterday withholding their services on the first day of the new school year. This left a reported 30,000 primary and secondary school students stranded but this figure was disputed by Chief Education Officer, Harrilal Seecharan, who said only 24 Government and Government-assisted schools were affected yesterday.
"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 said during a press conference yesterday afternoon at the Education Ministry's head office.
We know nothing about "ghost drivers" in our group, says President of the Association of Maxi Taxi School Transport Concessionaires (AMTSTC), Rodney Ramlogan.
"We have nobody here who stays home in their house and collects money. Everybody here works and if you want any confirmation, you could go to the principals of the schools that these maxis service and they would know. I don't know if it's (allegation) meant as a distraction from the real point, which is to finally pay us and to get back the system in order."
Ramlogan reminded that while the service to transport students to and from school is funded by the Education Ministry, it is the Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC) which actually manages the programme and pays drivers.
Hence, he said all questions about alleged ghost drivers should be directed to PTSC General Manager, Ronald Forde.
"I don't know if that (allegation) is a distraction but the same way you are interviewing me, I would like the management of PTSC to be interviewed and answer that question. (The) PTSC would know who to hire and who to fire...I cannot answer that."
Ramlogan also dismissed the minister's claim that he didn't have Ramlogan's number and therefore could not call the association president directly on Sunday evening, in an effort to avert the strike.
"We wrote to (Garcia) on July 25 and my number is here (on the letterhead). So if he wanted to contact me, he didn't have to make a hundred phone calls to get my number. Look how long we've been asking for a meeting. So what (Garcia) was saying about us, the disrespect toward us, he has continued to treat us like hustlers in this country and not businessmen."
Ramlogan was speaking with reporters earlier today during a protest by AMTSTC members outside the Education Ministry's head office, St Vincent Street, Port-of-Spain.
The AMTSTC president was responding to a statement made yesterday (Monday) by Education Minister, Anthony Garcia, during a press conference about, among other things, the association's decision to withhold its services until it receives full payment of TT $12 million owed for May, June and the first half of July 2017. Within the last month, the ministry has made two partial payments to the PTSC; $1 million and then more than $6 million.
While the delay in paying off what's owed prompted the AMTSTC to temporarily stop transporting students, Garcia said an allegation of ghost gangs was brought to his attention on Sunday evening.
"I was in a telephone conversation with a very senior official of the (AMTSTC), who expressed the view that the ministry should perform an audit of that system. He told me, '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."
Garcia made it clear he was not "casting any aspersions on anybody," the allegation was "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 would investigate the claim.
Newsday attempted to speak with Forde today but calls to his phone went unanswered while, up to press time, there was no response to our email.
Regarding the main reason for today's protest, AMTSTC Secretary, Clyde Mackhan, lamented that Garcia's silence on the association's now two-year-old request for a meeting has led to him (Mackhan) losing respect for the minister.
"When this administration came into power (September 2015), we wrote a letter to the Minister of Education, congratulating him (on his appointment) and requesting a meeting with him. To date, we haven't gotten a meeting yet. It's very disheartening. I always had high respect for (Garcia) but he's losing that now."
Mackhan also said some parents are in support of the associations' decision to withhold service until full payment is in their bank accounts, "because they know we have no money to put fuel in our (maxis)."
Apart from fuel, Mackhan noted that it's not cheap to maintain maxi taxis.
"One tyre is over TT $1,500. We don't use foreign used tyres, we use brand new tyres. We want...our children to travel to school in a nice, safe manner but we cannot afford to do this with the (little) money we're getting. We cannot (operate) with one fortnight or two fortnight's (pay)," Mackhan declared.