Trinidad and Tobago’s proud 101-year history of oil refining ended in anger and frustration yesterday as workers were forced to engage in sit-in protest demonstrations after their November salaries and severance packages were not paid.
The day began on a sombre note as Petrotrin employees reported for duties for the last time, gloom etched on their faces as they drove hesitantly through the gates leading to the company’s administrative offices.
The atmosphere could almost be likened to a wake as there was no chatter with Petrotrin’s estate police officers who traditionally manned the gates. Instead for a long period of time, the gates were unmanned and vehicles were allowed to drive onto the compound unhindered.
Then, as if to herald the company’s new reality, private security guards were seen taking up positions at the gates.
The gates leading to the petroleum bond were tightly shut with heavy padlocks, forcing road tank wagons transporting fuel to divert through the compound and exit at the administrative gates.
The mood soon changed from reluctant acceptance to anger and frustration as workers, upon learning that they had not received either their salaries or severance payments, engaged in sit-ins protest demonstrations at Santa Flora, Trinmar and the Pointe a Pierre canteen.
At just after 5pm, OWTU chief education and research officer Ozzi Warwick said Petrotrin had promised to pay workers their salaries and severance packages on or before November 30.
“They were now simply waiting to be paid. The company promised that they would be paid on or before the 30th of November, it is the 30th of November, it is now 5 o’clock and workers are yet to be paid.”
But in a media release late yesterday evening, Petrotrin stated $2.7 billion in “exit payments” had been paid into employees accounts. However the company noted some employees would have to wait until Monday for the funds to “reach their accounts.”
“The payments disbursed comprised $1.8 billion in termination packages; $201 million for outstanding vacation; $560 million in back pay; $150 million for medical and other benefits; and $55 million in payments for outstanding promotions. All 3,400 permanent employees will receive exit payments and 1,229 or 55 per cent of the company’s temporary workers received ex gratia payments.”
Petrotrin chairman Wilfred Espinet said: “This is a difficult time for all concerned and we hope that everyone affected is able to establish a positive and secure future for themselves.”
“Given the size of the disbursement and the mix of payments, the funds would not reach all employees accounts before midnight on November 30.”
Petrotrin noted it has “withheld the employees’ potential tax liability and placed these funds in escrow” to avoid delays in disbursing payments.
“The Company will remit the withheld funds once employees have satisfied the Board of Inland Revenue that their taxes are up-to-date.”
Following the closure of operations, the Company will continue to ensure that affected persons and their families will have access to support services for the next six months – services include stress management, change management and financial counselling.”
However, several Petrotrin employees who held their own press briefing at Paria Suites, La Romaine yesterday said the failure to inform them about the income tax requirements was another example of disrespect from the company.
“Why wait to the 99th hour, the 100th hour, after the bell has already been tolled and we are on the outside now looking in to tell us that here is what if you don’t do this now you will not receive your severance package which you are entitled so it feels now as if it is some sort of privilege rather than an entitlement which is very unfair,” Gabriel O’Souna, a former estate police constable said.
Meanwhile, temporary worker Khalifa Phillip could hardly contain her grief and her voice cracked several times while her eyes welled with tears as she said temporary workers had been thrown on the pavement by the company.
“There has been no communication to us on a personal level, not a phone call, not an email, not a letter saying that there will longer be a company. No respect. We are not being treated with dignity, we have the same bills as everybody.
“We have rent, we have children to feed, this was our livelihood. We were told nobody would be thrown in the bamboo, nobody would be on the pavement.
“That is exactly where I feel I am today, I am one of the 600 who they said would have to suffer. I am one month shy of 14 years in Petrotrin and I really feel neglected and ignored by the state.”
Two other temporary workers who were sitting in the audience echoed Phillips’s words as tears rolled down their faces.