Industrial relations consultant Gerard Pinard wants to know whether Government considered every available option before it took the decision to close down the state-owned Petrotrin refinery. He said the decision was not a good one and will hurt the economy and the society because of the important role Petrotrin plays in the country.
Speaking with Business Day, Pinard a former chemical engineer with Trintoc, the predecessor of Petrotrin, said more information should have been made available for such an important development. He cited the announcement by the majority trade union in Petrotrin, Oilfields Workers Trade Union (OWTU) that it had taken them by surprise.
He said while everyone expected something to happen, no one expected it would be as drastic as sending home 2,500 people. He recalled OWTU leader Ancel Roget referring to a memorandum of agreement signed with the Government prior to the last general election, and a joint committee being set up to look into ways and means to make the company viable.
The IR consultant said Petrotrin is duty-bound to consult with the recognised trade unions and must engage them in matters that involve their future. He said the decision to close the refinery cannot be done unilaterally, and if this was the case then the employer (Petrotrin) could be found guilty of an industrial relations offence in the Industrial Court.
"I do not have the information. The union is saying that it came like a thief in the night. If that is so, then it was badly handled. If in fact there were discussions that it was going to happen the union is entitled to put forward alternative options and asked for continued discussions," he said.
Continuing to press the point that the closure was not handled well, Pinard said it is not only about the workers who are to be sent home.
"There are over 6,000 retirees, over 5,000 contract employees, over 20,000 people who rely on the medical services mostly retirees and former employees and their families. The company runs a hospital and they provide medical benefits at subsidised rates for all these people. We do not know what is going to happen now to them. Will it continue? We don’t know."
Apart from people directly connected to Petrotrin, Pinard said people in fence line communities of Petrotrin will feel the full impact of the closure.
"Tens of thousands of people from the southern communities, the whole of San Fernando, Pointe-a-Pierre, Marabella, Point Fortin, Santa Flora and Fyzabad depend directly or indirectly on Petrotrin for their livelihood. I don’t know how much thought has gone into that. You have to have job losses but we don’t have the information to say whether this was really the only alternative or the best alternative."
Pinard said he was puzzled why a bailout, as was done in the case of Clico, was not used. "So my question really is whether TT, as an oil and gas based economy, did not think that our oil industry was strategically important enough to find some ways to save it." He said Government could have considered writing off part of the debt or taking over part of the debt temporarily as was done in the case of CL Financial.
Pinard said he is not in agreement with Petrotrin chairman Wilfred Espinet that there must be a higher level of oil production to keep the refinery running.
"For the chairman to be talking about we only have 45,000 bpd production and saying the refinery needs 160,000 bpd and therefore you cannot run a refinery profitably, there are countries which have no oil at all and who have refineries operating because they have to import everything to process and refine. So that by itself could never be a reasonable conclusion. We are located right next to the country with the largest oil reserves in the world. Have they considered importing crude from Venezuela?"
He called on Government to explore every available option before taking such a drastic decision to send home workers. He said retrenchment and laying off should always be the last resort.
In an address to the nation on Sunday, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley Government had little choice but to close the refinery, stating Petrotrin would need a $25 billion cash bailout to stay alive. Petrotrin loses $2 billion a year, on a recurring debt of $11 billion.
He said the refining assets of would be placed in a new company for potential buyers, including the OWTU, while Petrotrin will focus on extraction and exportation of oil. The Prime Minister is due to meet trade unions, led by the OWTU, today, mostly likely to discuss the state of Petrotrin and the movement's call for all workers to engage in a day of rest and reflection tomorrow in protest of Government's economic policies.
Ancel Roget, second left, President General of the Oilfields Workers Trade Union and other comrades during a press conference held at OWTU headquarters Paramount building Circular Road, San Fernando. According to IR consultant Gerard Pinard, state-owned oil Petrotrin must consult with the recognised unions on the future of the company. Photo by Anil Rampersad