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LABOUR-TRINIDAD: Outdated Law Costs Lives, Unions Charge

Peter Richards

PORT OF SPAIN, Aug 26 2005 (IPS) - In late June, routine repairs aboard a Panamanian-registered tanker called Tradewind Sunrise went horribly wrong when sparks from a welder’s torch ignited gas fumes, killing four Trinidadian workers.

The accident brought the number of people here who have died on the job this year to 13. According to the International Labour Organisation, some 3,000 people worldwide are killed daily in workplace accidents – about two per minute.

Now trade unions in Trinidad and Tobago are concerned that the relatives of the dead workers may not get adequate compensation, pointing to the failure of the Patrick Manning administration to sign into law the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), even though it was approved by parliament in February 2004.

David Abdullah, president of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOs, says the new legislation creates an oversight body that would have much more power than the existing Factories Inspectorate, which does not regularly monitor stores and offices.

The OSHA also provides for the establishment of joint health and safety committees in any workplace with more than 25 employees, and requires businesses to enhance basic safety procedures, such as ensuring clearly marked fire exits.

And it updates the Mines and Boring Ordinance dealing with oil rig operations like the Tradewind Sunrise, which lawyers’ for the deceased workers’ families say was in violation of national and international labour laws.

“Now that in the first six months of the year almost a dozen workers have been killed, surely the government will recognise that it must implement this act immediately,” the Express newspaper said in a recent editorial, stressing that tragic accidents would “continue to happen at the workplace, given both the nature of certain types of work and human error”.

The trade union movement in Trinidad and Tobago has been campaigning for many years for new safety legislation, since current protections are rooted in old British colonial law and the 1950 Factories Ordinance.

The National Trade Union Centre (NATUC), an umbrella grouping of the various labour bodies here, blames lobbying by some businesses for the slow pace of reform.

“That is the reality,” said Vincent Cabrera, NATUC’s general secretary. “Not all employers, but it’s a section of the employers that are demanding that the governmentànot put it into force,”

“The trade union movement is going to continue to push for the implementation of that act and you are going to be hearing more and more from us on that question in the near future,” he told a recent news conference.

Errol McLeod, president of the Oilfield Workers Trade Union (OWTU), the island’s biggest union, has also accused the government of lacking the courage to promulgate the legislation, which he said would protect working people and industry.

He said his organisation “could only find one cogent and compelling reason why the OSHA Act is yet to be promulgated – and that is the old combination of press by big business”.

But a senior official at the Ministry of Labour, Emmanuel George, speaking at a recent forum held by the Bureau of Standards, Health, Safety and Environment, disagreed with this interpretation.

“People have opposing views. The unions have their views, the employers have theirs and our role in the ministry is to try and get some consensus,” he said.

The Manning administration has publicly supported the need to amend the existing legislation. Labour Minister Danny Montano recently told Parliament that “Government intends to proceed with this Act at the earliest opportunity”, even as he was going through the legislation “line by line, sub-section by sub-section”.

“This is going to happen sooner rather than later,” he said.

Junior Trade and Industry Minister Dianne Seukeran added, “Certain things have to be worked out before.”

“I am not saying we will have to wait for 2020 for the act to be proclaimed,” she said. “It is a case of short-term pains for long term gains.”

Seukeran said the legislation needed to be on par with that of other nations, especially in the trade and energy sectors, since it could potentially be viewed as a barrier to foreign investment.

The Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce and the American Chamber of Commerce of Trinidad and Tobago dismiss allegations by the labour movement that their strategy is to stall the implementation of the legislation at all costs.

However, they say that the OSHA legislation lacks adequate checks and balances to prevent abuse by workers, and is “simply incomplete on the handling of this issue”.

For example, the legislation imposes a 1,666-dollar fine on any worker who willfully commits an act resulting in the death or critical injury of another person on the job. But the private sector bodies say the “penalty is not in proportion to the gravity of the crime”.

“While circumstances may warrant the involvement of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution, imposing a fine of 1,666 dollars is clearly insufficient,” the groups say, contrasting the fines to those imposed on companies for what has been described as “administrative type offences”.

They point out that under the OSHA legislation, if an establishment is not inspected by the fire authorities every two years, the prescribed penalty is 1,666 dollars and six months imprisonment, plus 166 dollars for each day the offence persists.

“While we must have sanctions, surely, the penalty is too harsh in relation to the offence, particularly as no consideration is given to the safety and overall condition of the establishment,” the two private sector bodies said.

But the unions note that even in workplaces with well-established health, safety and environment committees and properly codified safety procedures, there have been instances of management overruling or not implementing the recommendations of the committees.

One trade unionist told a recent forum here that records show that “the majority” of serious accidents in the industrial sectors in Trinidad and Tobago involve contract employees.

“Companies seek to reduce labour costs by utilising contract employees, since contract employees do not receive the benefits of permanent workers and in many cases are also paid considerably less,” said Chandrasain Ramsingh, an OWTU executive member.

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