Art, science of absenteeism


Carnival is more than fete and fun. It is a fine example of Trinidad’s built in ability to organise, project manage and to deliver on time and on budget. It starts, usually the day after Ash Wednesday when a recovering Carnival designer chilling out on a beach somewhere, like a recovering addict, starts to imagine what next year’s costumes will look like, not unlike other “recovering” addicts imagining the rush that will follow their next “hit”. It is like the energy senior counsel get going into the courtroom at the start of a big and complex case, or the architect seeing his design in three dimensions on the screen, or an actor going on stage.

That there is a distinctive energy that crackles on the air in the build up to Carnival is undeniable. But this energy, like the fabled pharmacists’ knife can cut both ways. Energy is not judgemental. It is elemental: it can be, and is, used for both good and evil. Roy Boyke used to say that “Carnival is devil’s time.” And Helen Camps insightfully described it as depicting the cycle of universal humanity. We are reminded of the biblical verse: "The Lord formed man out of the dust of the earth…” which we celebrate with mud mas on J’Ouvert at foreday morning as dawn arises…then comes the beauty and anarchy of Monday and Tuesday with its blue devils, pretty mas, kings and queens, footsoldiers, sailors and celebrants, love and lust, music and noise, order and chaos. All the complexity and paradox of our lives until Las Lap ends it all with a suddenness that, while we know, intellectually is coming, emotionally is never expected. Then we face the ashes of repentance on Wednesday. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.

Off the streets and the chaos, however, life goes on. Babies are born, hospitals are sanitised, telephones are answered, water is pumped into tanks (if you are lucky), and banks make change. Chaos cannot exist on its own. It must arise in the midst of order and multilateral symmetry, otherwise it cannot exist. It is the tension that allows life to arise in the first place and to go on.

So it will be no surprise that outside the bubble of Carnival, the perennial issue of absenteeism comes to the fore. Unsurprisingly, it does not significantly affect those organisations accustomed to the art and science of management. They plan for it. Managing absenteeism is like managing any other aspect of organisational life involving human beings. (I am told that it is seldom a problem with robots). But for those, parent, priest or production manager, whose idea of management still revolves around defining “discipline” as “punishment”, it is an issue. Notably, in the OED three of the first four definitions of “discipline” are “learning”, “teaching” and “instruction”.

Organisations that understand that concept manage the timekeeping and attendance, so that non-holiday celebrations including Carnival and Shiv Raatri are handled in the same way as official public holiday celebrations such as Christmas are handled. They are planned for in advance. Days off and days on are scheduled with agreement. Not everybody wants to play mas or even witness it, strange as it may seem, and productivity is arranged accordingly.

But for reporters looking for a story other than Machel Montano’s marriage and which band won which competition, Watson Duke, that model of rectitude and discipline, is always good for a little controversy. This time it involved a letter of protest he sent on to the press from some of his union members wanting to get the head of immigration fired for "excessive absenteeism”. It is always refreshing when it is the union promoting termination of a manager for absenteeism rather than the other way around.

You have to give it to Mr Duke. It worked! Within days the minister responsible sprang into action, telling the press that he would personally deal with charges such as the department taking up to six months to produce a passport, which apparently he did not know, especially since the night shift that produces them was shut down. Apparently he was unaware of this, as well. Are cabinet ministers told about budget cuts?

The unusually large two spread about the story in which anonymous “members” were quoted, featured actual photographs of the lady’s travel record. So that is all we mere mortals have to go on. They showed that she had been absent...Gasp!...on two separate occasions in 2018 and two in 2019. "Gone to conferences or training sessions abroad," they reported. Both times for the usual week plus two travel days. Is that what they claimed was being “never in office?” With an added sly question about whether these authorised trips were for personal or business reasons.

Now, there is absenteeism for you!

You really do have to give it to Mr Duke! He got the prominence a letter from the President of the country might attract.

Apparently her absences are why passports take so long to get, why budgets have been cut and the entire shift that produces the passports has been abolished and stationery procurement lapses. I guess she does all these things when she is here?

It is such a relief to have all these things blamed on a department head instead of the Minister of Finance for a change.

What would Carnival be without our protests? What was it Roy Boyke said again?


"Art, science of absenteeism"

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