Mr. Mayor – praise in public, criticize in private …

When a mayor resorts to angrily scolding a roomful of more than 80 adults (all of whom can vote), it tells me that he has forgotten the road travelled to the office he holds. It tells me that he should not be the mayor of anything; he should really return to the ‘block’ from whence he came.

Photo: San Fernando Mayor Junia Regrello (via newsday.co.tt)

There is a long-standing human relations principle, which is also practised in bringing up children: praise in public, criticize in private. San Fernando Mayor Junia Regrello’s recent outburst indicates the extent to which the party he represents disregards the people they should be serving and feel empowered to not think twice about verbally abusing us.

There was a time when the standard practice was that the organisers and the mayor’s office would have met and worked out the details prior to the function, therefore ensuring seamless execution. If the master of ceremonies made a faux pas, a quiet word would have been sufficient. If there was chatter from the audience while the mayor was speaking, a simple pause could have been enough to quiet the audience. But maybe the mayor was so boring that the crowd was totally disengaged. Maybe he lacks credibility to such an extent that the audience felt no compulsion to even listen to what he had to say.

Such verbal expression of anger is aggressive, violent, abusive and lacks the grace and dignity we expect from the holders of high office. I am not surprised because Mayor Regrello represents a party that perpetuates such hatred toward the population that the leader had no difficulty likening women to golf courses that needed to be groomed; the minister of finance had no difficulty jeering at the population when he boasted that there was no riot despite frequent increases in the price of gasoline; the attorney general suggested that a victim of sexual harassment said: “ah want money.” I can go on ad nauseam with the examples of abuse being perpetrated upon the very people who continue to vote them into office.

The mayor should have heeded his own advice that ‘the children are looking on’ and found the grace and dignity to de-escalate the situation so that what happened would have been publicly unnoticed, but privately dealt with. Instead, he chose to mar the celebration of the accreditation of a laboratory.

I long for the day when officials exercise their duties so that we all feel inspired and hold our heads proudly because they are representing us well. For now, many of us sit and cringe as mediocrity, bacchanal and disquiet prevail at all levels of our society. I keep asking, when did we get to this level of incompetence? But I live in hope that a new normal will be established based on mutual respect, grace and dignity.

Atone for your intemperance with sexual harassment legislation, Mr PM

Twenty-six years ago, Radhica Saith published a book titled Why Not a Woman? It paid tribute to more than 100 women in Trinidad who had been making a difference in various spheres of life.

One of the women featured at the time was former government minister and mother of our current AG, Faris Al Rawi. For most of her public life, former Minister Diane Seukeran has been at the forefront of the women’s movement. She has stood solidly in defence of women’s rights, and it is unfortunate that her son is now a leader in an administration that is being accused of covering up sexual harassment.

Almost three decades later, the government has relegated sexual harassment to the status of a policy initiative and not a ‘peep’ from the women’s movement. Why are we complicit in this injustice? Our daughters and granddaughters will not forgive us. Were it not for the man Kirk Waithe, Rolph Balgobin may still be at Angostura and the current investigation into the Darryl Smith affair may have had a more muted response, with the minister of labour happily shunting off complainants to the Equal Opportunities Commission. Well, this is not good enough.

Photo: Former Minister of Sport Darryl Smith and PM Dr Keith Rowley at Brian Lara Stadium opening in 2017. (via trinidadexpress.com)

Nothing less than sexual harassment legislation will provide the women of this country with the systems and structures that are required for their safety in the workplace. I hasten to add that sexual harassment is not a gender issue but, for the moment, the women are falling short in their advocacy for this issue. Where are we? Why are we quiet on this issue? My late mother would have asked: “Cat got yuh tongue?”

Where are the more than 100 organizations who march every year for women’s rights? What is their view about sexual harassment legislation? The landscape is overflowing with commentary about Daryl Smith and who attempted to cover up what, while the substantive issue is being ignored. This sordid issue will play out as it will in the public domain, but what will happen to the persons who continue to be victims? Without legislation, this issue will recur again and again.

The only solution is the implementation of sexual harassment legislation. Governments past and present have demonstrated that whenever they wish to fast track any legislation, they can. Sexual harassment legislation in this country requires urgent and immediate attention, and women must step forward and make our voices heard. If the current prime minister wishes to recover from his analogy of women being like golf courses and, therefore, needed daily grooming, here’s an opportunity for him to get into emergency mode and pilot sexual harassment legislation in parliament. Only a foolish opposition would not support such legislation.

My optimistic interpretation of the resounding silence by women is that this is the calm before the storm. My optimistic view is that the women’s movement is at a breaking point and that this injustice will not continue. Women will rise and demand that the prime minister atones for his intemperance by making sexual harassment legislation part of the successes of the 11th Parliament of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

Release the Darry Smith report

On 9 April 2018, I blogged: “How would things have been different for the minister of sports had the GOTT implemented a sexual harassment policy throughout all state enterprises and ministries and piloted relevant legislation? Women’s rights are human rights and once again this government is failing us.”

Eighteen months later and there isn’t even draft legislation. So, it means that in the next session of parliament, a strong lobby will have to be mounted to make good for this failure of the 11th Republican Parliament.

Photo: Former Minister of Sport and Youth Affairs and Diego Martin Central MP Darryl Smith.

Here’s an opportunity to insist that any political party that intends to sit in the 12th Republican Parliament must first be clear about piloting sexual harassment legislation. This is not wishful thinking; it’s a key requirement if we are to achieve gender equity in this country. In 2017, the government of Barbados enacted an Employment Sexual Harassment (Prevention) Act, so it isn’t that complicated, and quite doable if we set it as a priority.

If there was legislation in place, the Darryl Smith issue would have been dealt with in a court of law, and there would be no question as to what the real agenda is at play. In refusing the freedom of information request by Kirk Waithe, the permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister wrote: “Senior Counsel has advised that these requests as formulated, do not comply with the Freedom of Information Act” and provided verse and chapter about how the request does not comply.

When this government does not wish to satisfy a citizen’s request, it usually resorts to the legal position. What is so interesting in this report that it cannot be released? Who or what is being protected? Is there a principle here that escapes me?

I am not surprised because early in this sordid episode, the reference was made to a non-disclosure agreement, which signalled to me that hedging had begun. It turned out to be just another attempt to suppress the report.

You might be tempted to say that this is a personal matter, but I beg to disagree. The minister was, and still is, a member of parliament (ie being compensated with public funds) and was allegedly engaging in sexual harassment while he was a minister of sport. The alleged victim was also employed by the government, so public funds were being utilised. Since the public continues to underwrite the MP’s existence, it’s reasonable for the report to be made public. This cannot be seen as a private matter.

Photo: (From left) Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, then Sport Minister Darryl Smith, West Indies cricket icon Brian Lara, ex-West Indies cricket star Gordon Greenidge and then SPORTT chairman Dinanath Ramnarine at the opening of the Brian Lara Cricket Academy in Tarouba.
(Copyright CA-Images/Wired868)

So what if there are embarrassing details about the former minister? He should have used his brain to temper his actions. It’s important to send a message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated from whatever quarters it emanates. There are times when leaders must do the right thing, and in this case, the right thing to do is to release the report.

It’s even more important that action is taken to encourage victims to speak out on these and other issues. We must remove the fear of backlash, and that can only be done by building the appropriate systems and structures that will support all victims.

For our society to grow, we must nurture an environment in which people are unafraid. Once fear becomes ingrained, we will be in a very dark place and our freedoms and rights will be trampled upon.

Release the report, Mr PM.

State failure to blame for Arouca rehab facility

Leave alone … zap … seems to be the preferred management strategy being deployed throughout this country. It is a very unhelpful strategy to leave any situation to fester then swoop down and try to zap it out of existence.

The recent furore over the 69 or so people being housed by the Transformed Life Ministry (TLM) in Arouca is an example of deep systemic failure. Back in June 2016, when the pastor appeared before the joint select committee, it was clear that action needed to be taken to regularise his situation. Instead, it was left to deteriorate and now, zap, the authorities and media come down with a heavy hand and use the misnomers ‘slavery’ and ‘human trafficking’.

Photo: People found in cages at rehabilitation centre Transformed Life Ministry, Arouca. (via stabroeknews.com)

For the record, slavery means that you are doing physical labour for no financial recompense. Human trafficking is the action or practice of illegally transporting people from one country or area to another, typically for the purposes of forced labour or sexual exploitation. The recently discovered situation may be kidnapping, torture, and fraud, but is neither slavery nor trafficking.

Some of us have observed the disappearance of noted characters from our streets. Did we think that they went on all-expenses-paid vacations? No! They were taken off the streets in an attempt at rehabilitation. They were removed because their families had suffered enough at the hands of the drug-addicted or the mentally ill. Their families had given up on them. The state had abandoned them. Some of them may have ended up in the Arouca facility, recommended by a social worker, because of the dire insufficiency of official places to accommodate the socially displaced.

Over time, the capacity of institutions to house the socially displaced has not kept pace with growing numbers of people needing help. Once there is shortage, if the official system doesn’t compensate to satisfy demand, there will always be those who seek to fill the gap for a price. In this case, we have seen an increase in the number of informal institutions that operate under the radar and in the absence of rigorous monitoring and evaluation. Administrators of such institutions are left to their own devices to operate at whatever standard they choose.

It is not the first time that the authorities have made a dramatic swoop-down to rescue people who were in unacceptable circumstances. It has happened before with orphanages and elder-care centres. It will continue to happen until we strengthen the systems, processes and procedures to ensure compliance with standards.

In the case of the Transformed Life Ministry (TLM), it would be instructive to find out about the history of the authorities visiting his premises and providing recommendations for improvements. A monitoring and evaluation (M&E) visit would have revealed that people were being housed in circumstances not fit for purpose. But then, how different is this cage strategy from other isolation strategies at the St. Ann’s facility?

Photo: St Ann’s Hospital

This is yet another example of the state failing in its responsibility to provide institutional support or monitor and evaluate the circumstances under which such institutions are operated. It is particularly unfortunate that this is a case of people who are mentally challenged or who suffer from a mental disease or substance abuse. This is an example of spontaneous development to satisfy a need that is not being satisfied under any other circumstances.

The lesson from this should be that we urgently need to provide institutions both in terms of bricks and mortar and properly trained human resources to manage and inspect these institutions. Otherwise, this and similar dramas will continue to unfold, as people design their own solutions in response to any systemic failures.

The commissioner of police and the government will get some popular support for their apparent rescue, but the 60-plus families, who will have to deal with unstable loved ones, are now under pressure from a situation for which they are neither prepared nor have state support.

Patriotic can be the game-changer

The consummation of this deal with Pa­tri­ot­ic En­er­gies and Tech­nolo­gies Com­pa­ny Ltd (PET­CL) might be the game-changer we have been looking for to change the work ethic of Trinidad and Tobago. But it will require a level of collaboration that we have not experienced in recent times.

From one perspective, the Petrotrin Refinery failed because employees were overpaid, produced very little and the union was unbending in its demands. From another perspective, the failure occurred because successive governments ensured that incompetent party supporters held top positions for which they were unqualified and unprepared. Both the PNM and the UNC are culpable.

Photo: Oil refinery at Point-a-Pierre

If you are a former Petrotrin employee, please rethink the automatic role you see for yourself at Patriotic. If you and Petrotrin were in noise about some industrial relations issue, please do not apply. If you got your job either because of your PNM or your UNC strings, please slink away quietly because you were part of the problem. And if you were just an innocent bystander making no positive contribution, you also have no place at Patriotic.

Whatever the final financial arrangements, the rebuilding of this refinery will require a different mindset, one which is goal-oriented and focussed on objective criteria. Plans, processes and procedures will have to be king. The people who occupy the space will ultimately be responsible for the success or failure of this new venture, and it is at this point that I begin to worry.

What is the system that will be implemented to ensure the human resources engaged in this new arrangement are fit for purpose? How will we mitigate against being re-infected by the former entitlement culture? No doubt Trinidad and Tobago has the talent, but there is a deficit when it comes to matching talent to task.

Assuming we get all the physics and science right, I worry about how the new organization will motivate and inspire the people to do their best in an external environment that epitomises lack of productivity and rewards mediocrity. For this new entity to be successful, it must treat the host environment as a highly contagious disease and ring-fence its operations to prevent itself from being infected.

The statistic of moving from position 64 to 105 in the ease of doing business index in four years has implications for every aspect of the functioning of this new organization. Ease of doing business is not simply a ranking, it is a statement about the country’s capacity to succeed. For anyone who wishes to challenge the data, please remember that the World Bank has been engaged in this analysis over the past 16 years, and it is now saying to Trinidad and Tobago that the following 11 areas of doing business are becoming more difficult: “starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, getting credit, protecting minority investors, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing contracts, resolving insolvency and labour market regulation”. Trinidad and Tobago has to get these indicators moving in the opposite direction if we wish to be successful with this new venture.

For citizens who believe that this country can change, this is an exciting opportunity to be part of a game-changing initiative. Human resource companies, technology companies and talented citizens should be beating a path to this new organization, not with greed in their eyes, but with a view to making a difference. This is an opportunity to redefine the relationship between labour and capital in such a way that we understand that prioritizing people over profits will ensure our future profits.

History will remember kindly those who grasped this opportunity and made a difference!

Election Goody No.1; amnesty extension!

Hurray … election goodies have begun. The income tax amnesty has been extended to September 30th. But like an ungrateful voter, my response is a big steups. Unless the extension of time is accompanied by the release of refund cheques, we are all in the same place.

The tax amnesty was conceptualized to provide an opportunity for big businesses to regularize their outstanding taxes before the Tax Authority begins to focus on recovery. For the amnesty to be effective, the timely release of refunds is critical.

There is hesitancy to take advantage of the amnesty because business and people simply do not have the money to pay their taxes. If businesses did not have the funds in time for Monday 16, it is unlikely that they can raise those funds for 30 September for this amnesty to make sense.

The amnesty should be extended to October 31st in keeping with the statutory deadline established by the Registrar of Companies.  This would give the government the opportunity to pay all refunds, which some businesses are waiting for in order to pay the same government.

Daily businesses face impatient bankers as they negotiate overdrafts. They burn through cash reserves to pay those overdraft costs, which are incurred from not getting timely refunds. They live in hope that their creditor’s list will be reduced by one—the GOTT.

If a business cannot attach a cheque to the tax submission, then they are at the same place as prior to the extension of the amnesty. A little common sense will tell you that if you pay me and I pay you back and do some other things with the money you refunded me, the multiplier effect will kick in and make a difference.

There was a time when holding a government contract could back your overdraft, but not anymore. There is now a polite question: “Do you have any other contracts?” If the answer is no, then you’re sure to be sent in another direction to find some other promising projects.

The business model of relying on government contracts is unsustainable. We have learned that no matter who is in power if you or your business is not supportive of the government, you will be victimized and receive the polite regret letter indicating that your submission or proposal was not successful.

The last six years in this country has seen no wiggle room to run any business. The banks and financial institutions are ‘wetting’ us with interest and service charges. Those businesses with interlocking directorships are taken care of with preferential treatment, but the ‘Ramlal Public’ enterprises are doing financial somersaults to honour their obligations.

The minister of finance must understand that for a number of businesses in the present economic climate, the timely release of the refunds is critical to them staying afloat. If the minister really understood the hardship businesses are experiencing, he would release the funds to pay outstanding refunds. The immediate impact would be an injection of funds into the spending stream. The second benefit would be that the government’s coffers would be immediately increased because the funds would be available to pay outstanding taxes and benefit from the amnesty.

Only an uninformed person would ignore this amnesty and allow their interest rates to increase. This amnesty is a gift horse but there are constraints, which in some instances can only be relieved by the government doing the responsible thing and paying our tax refunds, including VAT.

This two-week extension is another example of fiddling and fishing for election likes.

Opportunity in the Collapse of Chinese Contract!

On the fourth anniversary of PNM’s election victory a game changer collapses. This collapse of a significant plank upon which the Keith Rowley-led administration placed its development programme is significant. I’m not surprised because we keep focussing on quick fixes in preference to the hard work of rebuilding our society from the ground up.  Somebody needs to start believing in us again and the entity best suited to channel that belief is the person in the position of Prime Minister.  With twelve months left in his formal administration, his game-changer is not evident, but his failures are glaring.

Courtesy the Trinidad Express 06/09/19

Trinidad and Tobago is a hard place to repair but someone has to begin somewhere, and the issue of productivity is clearly the best place to start. It’s not an easy solution, but it is the largest obstacle for us to begin chipping away at in quest to solve our problems.  The GoTT could have met with the contractors and shared their vision for providing affordable housing, maybe they would have looked at the stock of unoccupied houses to identify how to make them liveable.  Under a strong facilitator, they would have been able to come up with a collective strategy to achieve the objective. If the contractors came up with a strategy which they see as fair and equitable, they would be inspired to engage the hearts and minds of the tradesmen, labourers and suppliers.  There would be a ripple effect, but this couldn’t work without a gradual decrease in our make-work programmes. It means the country would be starting to rebuild from the ground up. If you could find the US$72 million to fund a Chinese building programme, then it can be found to fund a locally led building initiative which would suck up idle hands, transform them into productive workers and get money circulating again.  

In order to achieve this goal of building 5,000 housing units, it would have been necessary to engage in some level of training and retraining of persons in the construction sector.  This would have been an opportunity to improve competency across the board and to get people believing again that we can help ourselves. It would have been an opportunity to break the cycle of learned helplessness which I come across daily.  People who quickly say “ah dunno” and move on.

Trinidad & Tobago needs a transformation strategy and a transformational leader.  The fact that the Prime Minister has instructed the HDC to re-tender is laudable but not enough.  If you have to go out to re-tender then something went terribly wrong and the persons responsible must be held to account.  Someone seems to have put an “approved” sign to a contract which was not in the country’s interest.  Had it not been for the late vigilance of the Cabinet, we would have been “up a creek without a paddle”. Again, it is even more damning when the Prime Minister can say that parts of the contract were unacceptable both “structurally and legally”.  It is incumbent on the Prime Minister to demonstrate his commitment to accountability and take action. If the accountable person is too close to be removed by the Prime Minister, then he must remove himself if only for the symbolic demonstration that he will do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

The opportunity here is to demonstrate that the right thing will be done in the interest of the country and we believe in our people’s capacity to act in our collective interest at all times.  With twelve months to go, Prime Minister Rowley needs to carefully review his options and engage the wider population in identifying a way forward that is sustainable and outcome focussed.