State of emergency can be devastating but employers must follow the law

Police enter a store on Charlotte St, Port of Spain on May 12 to ensure everyone adheres to covid19 restrictions and protocols - Marvin Hamilton
Police enter a store on Charlotte St, Port of Spain on May 12 to ensure everyone adheres to covid19 restrictions and protocols - Marvin Hamilton

“You do realise, don’t you, that this is our sixth state of emergency in one generation?” was the question a serious woman from Tobago asked me in an irritated voice. They do not appreciate SoEs in Tobago, I gather.

I responded with the kind of denial such unwelcome statistics often conjure up, like electricity bills or the increase in gas prices.

"Yes,” she went on relentlessly. "There was 1970, the attempted military coup with Shah and Lassalle and Bazie and them.”

I had almost forgotten that one. Sometimes people like Ferdie Ferreira, who is a walking history book, mention it. That went on from April to November.

Then there was one in 1971, from October in that year till January the following year, after labour unrest (but we still were able to celebrate Christmas).

Then the conflict moved venue, to debates in Parliament, until 1990, when Abu Bakr and his men, trying to take over the government of the people of TT, caused confusion and considerable damage. That SoE lasted five months, from July 27 till December 9, 1990.

Then in 1995 there was a wee little SoE, one that only stretched around Occah Seepaul’s house in St Clair. I forget what that was about, but it just goes to show you, doesn’t it?

Then there was the serious one related to drugs and crime, from August-December in 2011, a scarce ten years ago. I cannot remember the resultant lowering of the crime statistics as a result, but I know that kidnappings for ransom almost disappeared. That anti-kidnapping squad really knows its business!

Now we have this new covid19 one, which started on May 16 and goes on until...

“Surely not!” I expostulated to myself (I love that word, expostulated). “Not indefinitely!”

Actually this period of public emergency could be as long as six months if the Parliament so decides. Or it can be as long as covid19, if the Minister of Health so decides, if that is a shorter period.

In case you missed it, what an SoE means is that it can give the police authorities legal powers to arrest and search citizens without a warrant. This one imposes a curfew on the entire country restricting residents to their homes between 9 pm and 5 am.

Other powers usually given to the police during an SoE affect citizens’ rights to freedom of movement, habeas corpus, assembly, association, speech and privacy.

You can understand why, back when the 1990 coup was taking place, these powers were necessary. National security.

Police officers on patrol in Woodbrook recently. - Jeff K. Mayers

Is there something more in the mortar than the pestle now? Fear is a strong motivator.

I am not trying to minimise what is happening now. The disastrous effects of SoEs on businesses during lockdowns are crushing. Many families have still not recovered from 1990.

But fighting a virus spread wasn’t contemplated when those rules were drawn up.

As I write this, someone sent me a video in which that good-looking young man Christian Chandler, the TTPS’s head of legal affairs, actually encouraged employees to report their employers to the police if they are breaching any public health regulation. Or if their employers are preventing them from obeying any of the public health regulations. Like forbidding them to wear masks, or insisting they break curfew hours, I suppose.

Employers would be crazy to do that, as it could lead to a whole workforce of covid19-positive people on sick leave. But it may be possible that some employers are crazy and refuse to supply free masks to their employees. I imagine that could qualify as a breach?

Mr Chandler promises that the police will then visit the workplace and/or the homes of such employers, examine the situation and if any of the regulations are not being obeyed, the employers will be charged.

This is not communist Russia we are talking about, or a Nazi regime. This is us. Trinidad and Tobago. Yes, you can call it up on YouTube to be sure.

Now, there are already laws, the Industrial Relations Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, that do that, but they don’t involve the police busting in and charging residents or occupiers and putting people in jail for a few days.

The existing public health regulations are very sanitation- and covid19-specific. The safety and health ones require standards of sanitation that few Trini homes can meet, including mine, especially with Sahara dust and WASA problems rampant.

Any worker, under the existing laws, can refuse to work without losing wages or being disciplined if, and I quote, "circumstances have arisen that are dangerous or hazardous to health and life.” The people from the factories inspectorate may come if the situation looks serious and the employer may end up in the Ministry of Labour or the Industrial Court and corrective measures imposed.

That is what used to apply, however. Those laws are apparently superseded now. The SoE allows anyone to call the police on the police hotline. And if I understood that nice Mr Chandler correctly, he said the police would respond. Not "could" respond, but “would” respond. They now have the right to come into your house without a court order, or your workplace, and you may be charged with an offence. Depending on what they find.

And that goes for any law, not just the Public Health Ordinance. Even if water lock off.

And don’t forget, ignorance of the law is no excuse. Once there is an SoE in force, ordinary laws no longer apply.

You can download those regulations from the internet if you want to read them. You probably should. The head of the police legal division was very clear in what he was recommending workers to do.

Fear the pandemic and be prepared.


"State of emergency can be devastating but employers must follow the law"

More in this section