The culture of protest and wasting public money

In this file photo, WASA workers protest outside the organisation's main office in St Joseph. -
In this file photo, WASA workers protest outside the organisation's main office in St Joseph. -

There was a short report in last Thursday's Newsday featuring a protest by employees of the WASA administration office.

At first, I did not believe it. But then, I recalled having glossed over a similar report previously, assuming it was just going to be another of Watson Duke’s usual manoeuvres, calling workers out because someone saw a cockroach in the foyer and therefore workers’ safety and health were endangered.

There have been almost daily complaints about WASA’s performance, and assuming that this is something employees must resent, because, as one mentioned to me some months before he resigned, if someone asks you where you work and you say, WASA they “look at you funny,” I thought there might be something I should take seriously.

It turned out to be a statement by the secretary of the recognised union claiming that management’s attempts to install a new procedure to collect data on absenteeism and late-coming, one of the most basic of management responsibilities, was “illegal.”

Attendance and late-coming in government offices have always been a problem seldom, if ever, treated with disciplinary hear about offices where it is almost compulsory for employees to start straggling in closer to ten in the morning than nine, take an hour and a half for lunch and leave for the day at 3.30.

In Port of Spain, where parking is always a problem, you are always sure to get a carpark space in the Hyatt parking building, where government ministries have commandeered most floors; if you go in before 9 am or after 3.30 pm, half of the spaces will always be empty.

The rest of the citizenry have tolerantly learned to adjust to public-service schedules and to ignore the President’s and Prime Minister’s protests about productivity. We like it so. It is part of the “culcha" (culture).

The union branch secretary is quoted as saying, in protest, the workers had been told to come in whenever they wanted, sign whenever they wanted and leave whenever they wanted. In addition they had been instructed not to submit sick-leave certificates and instead sign in as being present on those days.

As this has reportedly been what they have been doing all along, and it has been tolerated, or at least treated with indifference, it took me some time to figure out why they were protesting. This has been their “custom and practice" for donkey’s years.

Was the protest simply because this might be changed? Could it be that the union is claiming that because they have always had that freedom, the court will rule that management can’t change it on its own now without the union’s permission?

Well, their managers said they had discussed and consulted. But according to civil law, when I looked it up in the law library, in the public service, “consultation” does not mean the same thing as “agreement.” Apparently they have certain public policy requirements.

Governance must ultimately be the responsibility of management of the enterprise (and, in TT, the government), not the union, although the union must genuinely be listened to. But if I understand their claim, it is based on the fear that their attendance would henceforth be recorded and linked to performance and pay as though they were in the private sector.

I remembered 50 years ago when the government was borrowing, I think from the IMF, what was then an enormous amount of money to fix the deteriorated (yes, even then) water distribution underground lines system. It was not free money; it had to be paid back. As we all know, the system never got fixed.

I do not know what happened to the money. Public outrage was bitter and, as usual ignored after nine days.

Pipes burst, surface paving is dug up, selected contractors who are friends of friends are hired to do a very weak repair job which is calculated to burst three feet away within a couple of months. The contractors’ people get paid, roads are resurfaced, the pipes burst as scheduled and the cycle starts all over again. That is how governance works, or doesn’t, as the case may be.

And we like it so. It is not the only project into which we have poured billions of wasted money. Consultants examine, analyse, draw up plans, write reports and get paid. Sometimes foundations are even built, as with the long-promised oncology centre out near WASA headquarters, and then nothing happened after a $663 million contract, signed in 2007; it was supposed to be finished by 2014, but wasn’t, and was cancelled in 2018, foundations still bare to the sun and rain.

Then there was the Beetham wastewater treatment plan. Remember that one? It was abandoned after $780 million or thereabouts was paid out. Who monitors these things?

I remember a neighbour in the construction industry visiting the Chinese construction company that was building the Diplomatic Centre. He watched while the Chinese workers threw their chicken and chips boxes and plastic sweet drink bottles into the cement being poured into the foundations.

No one from our ministry of works was there to monitor or object, nor were there any at NAPA, which is only partially usable because all the maintenance instructions are in Mandarin and the equipment maintenance parts are only sourced from China. Has anybody ever used the NAPA hotel?

There were dozens of mainly construction projects begun and either cancelled unfinished when one government changed to another, and/or increased in costs while they deteriorated, and contractors were not paid because politicians demanded additions not covered in the contracts. The huge community centre in upper St James and even larger apartment blocks were built for retired public servants, neighbours were told. If they were, or it was just political PR, it makes no difference, they stood built and locked for years.

It doesn’t matter who is in power, the governance patterns are the same. Power moves into the hands of people who are unused to it and have minimal expertise in construction or economics. So they blame the contractors, not the ministerial demands by those new in power. It is a culture going back to the days of Buri Awai and John O’Halloran.

As for trade unions? They have power. They learned. Can you blame them? Check the registrar of companies to find out how many have set up their own contracting companies and “negotiated“ private contracts with the organisations their members work for. There is no law against it, is there?


"The culture of protest and wasting public money"

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