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Wednesday 19 September 2018
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Govt stands firm on refinery closure

NOT BUDGING: Energy Minister Franklin Khan, Planning and Development Minister Camille Robinson-Regis and Minister in the ministry of Finance Allyson West at yesterday’s news conference after a meeting between government and union leaders at the Office of the Prime Minister in St Clair. PHOTO BY SUREASH CHOLAI

THE government and the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU) have “agreed to disagree” about re-examining the viability of the Pointe-a-Pierre refinery, Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis said bluntly.

“What (the union) now wants is for the government to re-examine its position as it stands with the decision to close the refinery. The government is firm in its view that the decision cannot be re-examined at this time because we have looked at this situation for a year-and-a-half now. It is time for us to make the move to ensure the haemorrhage at the refinery does not continue,” Robinson-Regis said.

Last week, the government made a surprise announcement that from October 1, it will start the process of closing the refinery—estimated to be completed by the end of the year. Their argument was that the refinery was unprofitable, losing an estimated $2 billion a year.

The union had claimed it was not part of these initial discussions, but Robinson-Regis said that at yesterday’s meeting, the union said it had made a proposal to the board and the consultants, Solomon and Associates, about how the refinery could continue.

Yesterday’s meeting started at 3 pm, and even though Petrotrin—and thus, its majority union, the OWTU dominated the discussions, other leaders of the Joint Trade Union Movement were present. Notably absent, though, was Public Services Association president Watson Duke. OWTU president general Ancel Roget told reporters Duke had a prior commitment abroad. The meeting lasted just under three hours, and was chaired by the Prime Minister. Six Cabinet members and 18 union members attended.

On the agenda, Robinson-Regis said, was Petrotrin, daily-rated pensions, negotiations – including those outstanding for collective bargaining for periods that have not started, non-payment of arrears, and retrenchment. Not on the agenda was today’s planned day of rest and reflection, scheduled since Labour Day, although Robinson-Regis said there are contingencies if people decide to stay home. Like the last meeting between the government and the union last month, Dr Rowley did not attend the media briefing, instead sending Robinson-Regis, Energy Minister Franklin Khan and Minister in the Finance Ministry, Allyson West.

What the government and the union did agree on, Khan said, was that the company’s strength was in exploration and production. What their plan was weak on, he said, was the feasibility of the plant. The union suggested upgrades, he said, but over the years billions had already been spent to upgrade the refinery. “Nothing in their plan brought anything in the way of profitability in the future or at present.”

The meeting also considered the impact on workers as well as the fenceline communities, and West said over the next two years a “significant portion” of the Public Sector Investment Programme will be allocated to San Fernando and environs. Otherwise, Robinson-Regis admitted that nothing new came out of the meeting. The union, she said, had called for the meeting and the government granted it to see if anything new would come out. “The OWTU brought nothing new to the table,” she said.

The next step from here will be for the board of Petrotrin and the OWTU to work out the settlement packages for workers. The panel, particularly Khan, was asked about the future of the assets, since Petrotrin chairman Wilfred Espinet has been adamant that it will not be sold, mainly because nobody would want to buy it. Rowley, however, has alluded to the formation of a holding company for the assets, even offering the union first preference in his statement to the nation last Sunday.

“I never said it was for sale, but we are willing to talk to anyone who sees an opportunity that we cannot capitalise on. The State is obviously willing to talk because no matter what spin we put on it, the refinery will have salvage value at a minimum or some operational value based on the type of business model somebody brings to the table,” he said.

Asked if the government had received any bids or offers, Khan said: “We haven’t reached there yet, dear. We are in a position now where the refinery will be closed and then obviously the next phase, as the Prime Minister said, is tomorrow’s job.”

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