Back in 1982, just shy of 40 years ago, Dr Carl Parris, a well-known and highly respected member of the faculty of government at UWI, did an analysis of those people who were regarded as being in power in Trinidad and Tobago, whom he defined as those who made decisions that affected the national economy on behalf of the nation. He narrowed in on those in control of government and state enterprises, as those were the focus of his research at the time. And the perceived seat of power.
Dr Parris’s work came to mind recently when I read an article by Curtis Williams, one of our most articulate economic researchers, of yet another debacle perpetrated in the state-controlled energy sector, where the real power lies. This time, it was through a $250-million loss due to poor judgement by the board of directors at NGC led by Conrad Enill.
At the same time I came across a notification of Business Women’s Day, which will be celebrated on September 20 this year (in case anyone is interested). It did not exist in 1982.
Of course, no one takes responsibility for poor corporate judgement or poor governance in state enterprises. The boards of directors tell people looking for answers to ask the minister, and the ministers tell them to ask the chairs of the boards, forgetting to mention that it is the politicians that chose the chairs. And in the end, it is always Cabinet, now mainly the Prime Minister, that makes the decisions. He can and does override board decisions using his own power and wisdom. That is not a power given to him in the Constitution, but accorded to him by the consent of his colleagues.
Back in 1982, according to Dr Parris, there was a workforce of 483,000 people out of a population of 1,120,000, with only 300 people who sat as directors on state-owned boards, which he calculated to be .06 per cent of the workforce or .025 per cent of the population.
Those who were enjoying the perquisites of power that came with making the decisions to determine the economic and social well-being of the people of TT he defined as those who sat on three or more boards, who numbered 23. That is in the public sector alone, the focus of his study.
So I sat and I pondered. What have we learned in the passage of almost 40 years, and how have things changed?
There has been progress in many fields. Women in business, for example. In 1982 there were no women recorded as being on three or more state boards. Now there are two. Which is a 200 per cent increase.
In 1982 there were 23 men on three or more state boards; now there are four, which is a decrease of 525 per cent.
Interesting statistic, which reflect the 80 per cent female-to-male ratio of university graduates in certain disciplines. See the number of female accountants (ten) and lawyers (13) who are directors in their own right on state boards. And of the 37 state corporations listed, 27 have female corporate secretaries, the qualifications for that position usually requiring legal certification. Six women directors now even chair their boards and six are chief executives. Back in 1982, none were.
There have been other changes in state board statistics which reflect sociological changes as well. Thirty-five years ago, there was a worldwide movement which came out of Europe and the strong socialist political philosophies that dominated many political parties, especially in Germany, for what was known as “workers’ participation in management” which included worker directors on boards.
Under the political guidance of Dr Eric Williams, TT was heavily influenced toward a kind of libertarian socialism and in the early 80s several attempts were made to establish workers’ participation on boards, but for a number of different reasons they did not last, and discussions on that system as a socio-political philosophy seem to have faded in favour of state capitalism, where the state owns “the commanding heights of the economy” such as electricity, gas and oil, water, public transport, port operations, etc, and workers’ participation disappeared as part of the national dialogue.
It was a little surprising therefore, when my research turned up nine workers who are directors on their state corporations’ boards, including one listed as a driver, one as a clerk, and two trade unionists listed separately as directors.
Except for the board of ISCOTT (as it then was) and perhaps the Port Authority I do not remember any other government-appointed worker directors on government boards at that time. The difference between union directors and worker directors ran into political disagreements, as people failed to make vital distinctions where there were differences, and conflict arose, as it always does, over power-sharing.
The tradition of joining together for institutional strength and co-operation has been a foundational cultural one in TT for many years. Women in villages have used it for centuries without needing legislation. It built on the sou-sou tradition which has been so exploited lately, but that in itself was formalised when the Friendly Society Act was passed in 1888.
Systems build on systems, and trust builds upon trust in what works and trust on who manages it. The Friendly Societies Legislation was amended over and over. I counted 12 amendments before the political environment prompted a shift into the more formal credit unions in 1945, which are still supported by women.
This is not counting the private sector, where women are more frequently on boards of directors. The majority even there tend to be accountants or lawyers. In 2021 there were 68 women on government-appointed boards of directors.
That two were on three such boards is, in itself, a remarkable advance. In only 40 years, women’s status in that power sphere has risen by close to a quarter, to 68 out of the 257 state board directors!
Not that I expected equality between women and men, or a public policy about gender equality.
Three state boards even have only three women on them. One, for example is the Union Estate Electrical Generation Co Ltd; another is called the Upstream and Downstream Energy Opportunity Co Ltd. I am not sure what they do, as I had never heard of them before. There are others, of course, with only three males, such as Alutech and Alutrint, and other male-only ones such as Heritage Petroleum and Petrotrin, which of course are more vital to the economy.
But that is progress.