THE DISCLOSURE that the Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Commission (T&TEC) is paying about $120 million in overtime to its workers every year may not be shocking to some given what we have come to expect in Trinidad and Tobago society. But that does not make it acceptable.
Electricity supply, like most of our basic utilities, is a 24-hour service. It should be a given that workers will be required to work at all hours and that on some occasions they will be called out to work beyond conventional work days. With $120 million, T&TEC could probably pay hundreds of workers over several years. In a situation where the commission is suffering from high levels of debt, due to the laxity of State agencies, $120 million in expenditure is even more costly.
Of course, when workers are called to go beyond the line of duty they should be adequately compensated for doing so. But the information disclosed at Wednesday’s meeting of the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee strongly suggests that the overtime system is subject to manipulation and abuse and that overtime is being paid in situations which could be avoided.
The concurrence of a high absenteeism rate with a high overtime bill suggests several possibilities. Workers may be over-worked; conditions within T&TEC may be so bad that staff is demoralised; or workers may be staying away from the job deliberately because, in their calculation, overtime fees will make up the gap. All of these scenarios are unsatisfactory.
According to T&TEC general manager Kelvin Ramsook, overtime is paid when crews do work in Port of Spain after hours; are needed in the field around the clock because of severe weather; and are deployed to areas considered crime hotspots. But can the additional expenditure be justified in all of these cases?
When it comes to the capital, an effort should be made to partner with the police and local government to schedule maintenance work at off-peak hours during normal working days. Work after hours should only be required when the particularly assignment is of such a nature as to not fit neatly within normal hours.
Deployment during severe weather may be impossible to avoid, but T&TEC should at least consider having crews dedicated solely to the provision of support to emergency responders.
Finally, it is difficult to see the payment of overtime as an appropriate response to deployment in hotspot areas, particularly as crime and violence are now a feature of every community in this country. More defensible arrangement would be the provision of police protection at the site.
The current situation demands a rethink of existing expenditure levels. Time’s up for bloated levels of overtime.