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They took. They went. We lost.

Published: 
Sunday, August 19, 2018

First, the good news. The new Angelin platform, commissioned by bpTT, is home to be installed. If all goes well, it will start producing much needed additional gas in early 2019.

Good news for those who work in the energy sector and for all of us, as the additional gas will help stem the drop in gas production, help T&T fulfil its supply contracts and add to the overall economy.

It’s a crying shame, though, that it was not better news. As the platform set off to its future location, we could have been celebrating a major moment for T&T’s engineering and manufacturing sector, (who knows) future major orders, and many more people in employment in the economically deprived area of La Brea.

Sadly, this outcome will remain just a dream and no thanks to our all too familiar culture of confrontation, bravado, and intransigence when it comes to industrial relations.

It all seemed to be going well. T&T’s Tofco had been awarded the fabrication of a similar platform, Juniper. That project was expected to employ over 750 people at its peak, 95 per cent of them being T&T nationals, 55 per cent of them from La Brea.

Juniper was delivered and is in operation but not without upheavals. Following industrial relations problems that threatened the project, the fabrication of parts of the platform had to be moved to Texas to make sure it was delivered on time.

The result of all that? For Angelin, bpTT did not want to go through the high risk attrition game it saw during Juniper’s construction. To be safe, in early 2017 it decided to build the platform outside T&T.

The company’s decision led to perhaps one of the most memorable sound bites in the country’s history, when Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union president, Ancel Roget, told bpTT to take their platform and go.

To run the full quote, he said: “take your platform and go because we are not prepared to have any construction in an environment that is unsafe, unhealthy and certainly that is devoid of industrial relations practices”. A tad rich given Tofco’s solid health and safety record, and the preaching about industrial relations practices coming from a man who, just a year earlier, had been found guilty of defamation against a former NP manager after allegations he made against her were found to be, in the words of the judge, ‘wholly unsupported, untrue and outlandish’. To put it in plain English, the man lied, and in a big way.

That’s why, instead of seeing Angelin departing from La Brea, we had to witness the platform arriving from Altamira, Mexico, where it was fully built. Our loss, Mexico’s gain. (And, yes, Mexico is known for its lower wages, when compared to the US, but its average monthly wage is around $8,500 (TT), hardly breadline material.)

The loss wasn’t limited to Tofco or another contractor. What it is all too easy for our union leaders to forget is that the economic ripple effect of such major projects is huge. Every employee, when paid, spends at local grocery stores, helping local food producers; at shops selling clothes or domestic appliances, helping local sales people and manufacturers; and, yes, even rum shops. That, in turn, brings in much needed additional tax receipts to help pay for public services.

In this case, the loss was even more criminal. It would have brought much needed foreign direct investment, injecting additional US dollars into our economy at a time we worry about our foreign currency reserves. And it wouldn’t have been the kind of speculative FDI many governments worry about. After all, bpTT would be investing in pipes and wires, not stocks and bonds.

The full cost of a project like Angelin can easily generate $10 billion (TT) of business in the shape of manufacturing and services. Not everything is spent directly in the country (mostly because of the very specialised nature of the equipment or services required) but the fabrication of this type of platform can bring in over $1 billion (TT) in direct investment. Ironically, it’s the unionised workers of Altamira in Mexico who have a lot to thank Mr Roget for his flippant remarks. They took the platform, thus taking the wages that came with it.

The actions—and reaction—by the union leadership may have also baffled many of their comrades in other countries. Elsewhere, you tend to see unions fighting tooth and nail to secure contracts to longtail sectors like shipyards in order to save jobs in the short term and secure the future of their industry, as they know a manufacturing plant without a major contract almost certainly equals gates closed forever.

The crucial question is whether all of us, especially some of our union leaders, will learn from the two recent and sobering industrial events—the loss of our steelworks and, soon afterwards, the loss of the Angelin contract.

If they don’t, we must. It is about time we question our country’s approach to industrial relations and, at the same time, challenge this scorched earth policy routinely adopted by major union leaders.

They may rejoice with their memorable quotes or stunts. Sadly, we can hardly rejoice when we see lower investments, fewer jobs and a poorer country thanks to their actions.

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