The Urban Development Corporation of TT (Udecott) took a hard line on the 12 subcontractors working on the Red House restoration project, removing 70 workers employed on the site without valid work permits, roughly a third of the workforce of 200 working on the project. Udecott chairman Noel Garcia described the workers on the site as a “mini United Nations” and claimed that workers from Venezuela were willing to work for less than local labourers. Venezuelans, he said, were working for $250 per day when TT workers earned $400.
The company has launched a probe into the hiring practices of the contractors working on the project, now in its nineteenth year. Udecott took over the restoration in 2005. Chief Immigration Officer Charmaine Ghandi-Andrews told a Joint Select Committee on Human Rights last week that 7,000 foreign nationals are now seeking asylum in TT, the majority coming from neighbouring Venezuela. The government must make a clear decision about its handling of a significant influx of Venezuelan labour.
The official response to the situation has been guided by the numbers that are available to Immigration officers, but that’s obviously a lowball estimate of the actual number of Venezuelans present in TT today.
In the early 1960’s another close neighbour, Grenada, was experiencing challenges to its economy and a significant migration of labour from that island came to TT. By 1962, Grenada, then an island of less than 90,000 people total, had an estimated 40,000 nationals working in a range of professions in Trinidad and Tobago. Trade between the two nations was brisk and benefited both.
Perhaps it’s time to look at the opportunities in this influx of Venezuelan labour and design catchments to make better use of this resource rather than seek to limit it or worse, to expel desperate people seeking a better life.
Housing Minister Edmund Dillon quickly responded to the report of illegal workers, noting that Udecott does random checks on its work sites and has not found any immigrants working illegally. A non-national, he explained, can work for thirty days, once a year, in this country without a work permit.
It’s clear that Udecott must adopt a more proactive position in the execution of its project, and its review of the Red House project should also evaluate the quality of the work being done as well as the workforce profile and the corporation must insist on the highest standards of restoration.
If it takes more than two decades to fix the Red House, the public is entitled to expect a job that demonstrates both quality and durability.