The breakdown at the arrivals hall of the Piarco International Airport on Sunday was exasperating, damaging and completely unnecessary. We demand better.
A process that would normally take minutes instead lasted as much as four hours as less than a handful of immigration officers checked hundreds of stranded women, men and children.
The cause of the staff shortage was reportedly a planned sick-out by officers, frustrated by the non-payment of salaries due from last year. But whatever the cause, by 2 pm it was clear enough that effective action by the Airports Authority and the Immigration Department itself was required. Woefully, none was forthcoming and the matter persisted until 7 pm.
We do not deny immigration officers their right to earn a buck: to be paid for work faithfully done. That is a basic moral and contractual entitlement that no worker should ever see disturbed. Why must the State persist in its shoddy treatment of public servants? It is intolerable that in today’s day and age, slow payment remains a feature of public sector life.
But officers do little to further their cause by transferring their frustration onto the public at large. They should be seeking to influence by performing well, winning the confidence of the people who elect the leaders who hold ministries such as the Ministry of National Security to account. A government minister was among the people in the arrival hall on Sunday.
It is unclear whether last week’s call by Public Services Association (PSA) president Watson Duke for workers to stay away from work played a role in Sunday’s developments. Whatever the genesis, the workers’ conduct does not befit the importance of the positions they hold.
Immigration officers perform grave functions that have a direct bearing on our national security, public safety and regulatory control. They are literally the first point of contact made by visitors to our soil. Many such visitors come from countries with which Trinidad and Tobago has established treaty relations and for which we do not require visa entry. Such arrangements are imperilled if their implementation is frustrated by events such as Sunday’s.
But the workers are not the only ones who should be faulted. The Airports Authority also appeared to have been caught off guard or to have not had contingency plans in place. For example, while photography and video recordings are banned under the law at our international airports, not enough security personnel were available to prevent people from making videos in what is supposed to be a highly controlled area.
It is unacceptable that a situation was allowed to develop which saw the line of people waiting to be checked reach all the way out of the airport building and back onto the tarmac. All would do well to take instruction from one of the most famous examples of an airport strike and its consequences: the air traffic controller strike of August 5, 1981, in the United States.
On that day, US president Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who had ignored his order to return to work. Nearly 13,000 controllers had taken strike action after contract talks with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) collapsed. But the FAA’s contingency plans kicked in. Some 3,000 supervisors joined 2,000 non-striking controllers and 900 military controllers in manning the commercial airport towers. Not only did Reagan fire all the strikers, he imposed a lifetime ban on each, preventing them from ever being re-employed.
Such severe action was appropriate only because of the grave nature of the role performed by officials who are employed at airports. Clearly, the time has come for our airport workers to be deemed members of the essential services. We cannot afford to have chaos where we need security most.