By Carol Quash
Before she was a spouse, a parent, president of a trade union or a government minister, Jennifer Baptiste-Primus is first a woman. A strong woman who knew exactly what she wanted out of life and carefully charted her way forward to the top, often having to ride against the odds and altering her course to suit the circumstances.
“I wanted to be a racing car driver, but of course, we were poor and that was not possible because cars cost a lot of money, even in those days. So, my next best choice was a motorbike. I was the first woman to ride a motorbike in TT. Every time I got on that bike my parents and grandparents would say a prayer.” The first woman to be appointed Minister of Labour and Small Enterprise Development laughs heartily as she speaks with Newsday at her office at The International Waterfront, Tower C, Port of Spain.
“Women have to realise we are not powerless,” she says, on a more serious note. “Attaining the office of Minister of Labour is very humbling from the point of view that there are so many expectations. And this (Industrial Relations) is not an easy arena. When you look out there all the trade union leaders in this country are males. And they are not easy to contend with. The good thing about it is that I know them all because I was part of the landscape for so many years. I know how they feel, I know their passion, I know the sense of wanting to remove discrimination of all types, of the passion of wanting to see workers enjoy enhanced terms and conditions, the quality of life improved.”
But as far as she is concerned, she has a job to do without any gender biases. “Perhaps it is because I worked with men all my life that I don’t view myself from the gender lens. I have a very clear idea of what I want to do and how I want to go about doing it… In 2020 I will demit here, but in demitting office I want to leave the Industrial Relations landscape in a much better place than how I met it as Minister of Labour.”
Baptiste-Primus says when she was appointed Minister in September, 2015, she joined a team of very professional public officers who, in the space of two and a half years has achieved a great deal. Among other things, “We have held more than ten consultations on various pieces of legislations that require amendments. The Co-operative Societies Act Chapter 88:08, The Industrial Relations Act Chapter 88:01 as amended, the Retrenchment and Severance Benefit Act Chapter 88:13, Cipriani Labour College and Co-operative Studies Act Chapter 39:51, The Friendly Societies Act Chapter 32:50, Occupational Safety and Health Act Chapter 88:08 and Workmen’s Compensation Act Chapter 88:05. We will be looking at the amendment of the Trade Union Act Chapter 88:02 next month. These consultations resulted in three Position Papers submitted to Cabinet for the amendment of the Industrial Relations Act Chapter 88:01, the Retrenchment and Severance Benefit Act Chapter 88:13, Cipriani Labour College and Co-operative Studies Act Chapter 39:51.”
But her success did not come overnight and without sacrifices.
“I entered Parliament as a Senator for the PNM (Peoples National Movement) arising not only out of my position as the Labour Relations officer of the party, but primarily also because of my experience in the Trade Union Movement, having been the only female executive president of a trade union from 1997 to 2009, and having spent more than quarter of a century in the PSA (Public Service Association) representing public officers and other workers in the country.”
She worked her way up the ranks in the PSA, all the way to the top. “I started as an assistant secretary, which was really an industrial relations officer.” Eventually, she was appointed chairperson of the Women’s Committee. “And that journey to itself was an exciting journey. I remember when Clause 4 was introduced in the Sexual Offences Bill,” something on which she had worked along with attorney at law Lynette Seebaran Suite, journalist Dr Sheila Rampersad, writer Dr Merle Hodge, Professor Rhoda Reddock, Jackie Burgess and many others. “We all were very engaged in building the women’s movement in those days. That would have been in the 1980’s and I remember Clause 4, which was the recognition that rape exists in marriage. And you could have well imagined the furore that erupted in the society. The priests, the pundits, the religious sector, they all raised their collective voices in opposition arguing that ‘the law has no right being in the bedroom’. Those of us who were very buoyed up and very focused in the women’s movement felt that rape did exist and we lobbied, we held meetings all across the length and breadth of this country taking the information to the women in the community and advising them about the positive aspect of this Sexual Offences Bill, which became law incidentally, with Clause 4 remaining within the legislation.
“Needless to say, I became known as Madame Clause 4 in the PSA, among my almost male colleagues and that is something that I have cherished,” the minister chuckles.
Several years after becoming an officer of the PSA, Baptiste-Primus was appointed the first female deputy general secretary, and subsequently first female general secretary responsible for all the finances of the PSA. “In 1997, I decided to run for the president of the PSA. There were five teams. I was the only female, but I knew the job because I could have done it with my eyes closed. The previous four years as the general secretary, the second highest office in the organisation, I had literally run the organisation.” Clyde Weatherhead was the then president, and Baptiste-Primus says she gained the experience without sitting in the chair. “My track record spoke for itself. Once I gave someone my word I kept it. To members with grievances, those are some of the small things you do that allow people to develop confidence in you, that they can depend on you to deliver. The job as representative of someone means that you may be that person’s last resort.”
The position demanded a lot of time and effort. “As the president of PSA, I worked 12 to 15 hours a day. Similar to what I’m doing here as minister. But in those days my responsibility was to a specific group of persons, public officers and members of the PSA. As Minister, I am responsible for the entire country.”
The mother of two says in addition to having a plan, one of the contributing factors to her successful career was the assistance of her extended family and close friends, something she laments seems to be lost to this generation. “What enabled me to succeed? I had a very structured family support system - the extended family. When you look around today, in many instances, the extended family is at risk.” She believes for mothers, especially single mothers, the extended family is a necessity.
“In order to succeed you have to sacrifice and you must have a very good support network. The best is your family members or close friends,” who make up the village that is instrumental in raising children.
Baptiste-Primus is passionate about female empowerment and believes no matter what a woman’s circumstances, there are always opportunities to help her enhance the quality of her life. She just has to take the necessary steps. “First to begin you must have faith in God. From where else will we draw that inner strength? If you are a single parent you must be employed… You must never be ashamed to do any job, once it is an honest job, because a job gives you that level of independence. Save… That is another principle that must be ingrained in us as we are growing up.”
And when it comes to reproductive health, the minister insists that too is within a woman’s control. “As women we must determine how many children we want… We have the right and the ability to control our reproductive health. There is something called family planning, a tool that could assist us in planning our life,” and just as useful as education. “Learn something. If you are academically inclined the sky is the limit. If you are not, there are so many government programmes in place to empower you.”
And as the Minister under whose purview entrepreneurship falls, Baptiste Primus encourages women to make use of the opportunities the ministry affords. “Harnessing and encouraging entrepreneurship is one of the portfolios of this ministry through the National Entrepreneurship Development Company Limited popularly referred to as NEDCO, whose mandate is to grant small loans to small business persons. Whatever business you believe you want to engage in, NEDCO can assist.”
She urges women to desist from relinquishing their power. “I have responsibility for my life. I have a marriage with you but that does not reduce me as an individual. I have hopes, I have dreams, I have aspirations that I hope to share with you and that both of us will build a life together.” She says there are always tell-tale signs of insecurity in a relationship, and women need to pay attention to these. “When you meet a man and he always wants to be around you constantly. You can’t breathe to engage in other activities for your growth and development; those are definite signs that there is an issue of trust. And every time a woman is killed my heart bleeds, because it means, therefore, that not only is the family disrupted when there are children involved, sometimes the children may witness these incidents that may scar them emotionally for life.”
The prevalence of domestic violence against women, Baptiste-Primus believes, has its roots in the way in which men are socialised. “But we have to remember that men were brought up in a socialisation process that says that the man goes out there and hunts and does whatever appeals to them while the women work at home.” She says the socialisation process needs to be restructured in order for some men and women to understand their worth. “Men must understand that women are your equals, women are not your property.
“We are seeing so many women killed these days. And when you look at it, it’s the whole relationship construct that many men have not really learnt how to deal with women’s independence and with women claiming their rightful positions.”
Baptiste-Primus says there are more than enough positive role models throughout TT, “like our first female President Elect Paula Mae Weekes, the Speaker of the House of Representatives Bridgette Annisette George; President of the Senate Christine Kangaloo; and the Leader of the Opposition Kamla Persad Bissessar, who was our first female Prime Minister. These are women who have succeeded in male dominated arenas.”
However, she admits there are some areas that are more difficult to penetrate. “But breaking the proverbial glass ceiling certainly in certain arenas is not so easy. I can talk about the Trade Union movement. It is the last bastion of male dominance, not enough women are Trade Union Leaders… Personally, I would like to see more women involved in trade unionism, in the top positions,” as well as a more child-friendly environment such as the inclusion of daycare services and homework centres for the children of the women who work within the movement.
Of her career and retirement Baptiste-Primus says, “My journey has been one that has been filled with more joys than sorrow… After my service at this level I will quietly recede back into retirement to enjoy the freedom of going wherever with my husband. I look forward to spending time with my children and family and just relaxing and enjoying life,” and watching Lifetime movies, she giggles uncontrollably. “I love Lifetime movies… But in the meantime, there is much work to be done in this ministry and I look forward to achieving Government’s policy mandate. When the time comes I will thank the team and ride off into my own sunset,” but not on a motorbike.