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. 

Private And Public Sectors Competing For “Dead Last” Title In Efficiency 

Private or public sector, inefficiency and lack of productivity is rampant.  An ongoing experience with (Price Waterhouse Coopers) PwC since 2012 has left me challenging the statement that public servants are lazy.  I am beginning to conclude that the lack of productivity observed in the public service is equally rampant in the private sector. The simplest of transactions take an inordinately long time and quality customer service is the exception rather than the rule.  

My current angst is with the reputable firm PwC.  In 2012 they were invited to carry out the voluntary liquidation of the Caribbean Games Company (CG09).  Seven years later, there is one outstanding matter holding back the finalization of the Liquidation and PwC who is being paid monthly has attached no urgency to wrapping up the Games.  As a matter of fact, the liquidator is actively ignoring any approaches on this issue. Contrast this seven year timeline with the PwC British website which boasts that that complex liquidations take an average of 24 to 30 months.

The matter preventing the completion of this liquidation is whether or not the board members should be remunerated for their service.  It is a reasonable expectation that service on a Board would attract some form of remuneration unless explicitly stated to the contrary.  At the last meeting with the liquidator in May 2019, the following statement: “… a total payment of more than a million dollars to seven Directors for Games which never came off is unconscionable…” raised the ire of the following members: Mrs. Dennise Demming, Dr. Iva Gloudon, Dr. Arthur Potts, Mr. David O Brien, Mr. Douglas Camacho and Mr. Mushtaque Mohammed.

For the record, under the leadership of former Minister of Health, Mr. Jerry Narace, Trinidad & Tobago created history by being the only country to cancel any activity because of the H1N1 scare and this cancellation occurred 6 weeks prior to the staging of the Games.  The board had been working diligently for the 30 months between their appointment and this cancellation.

The liquidator has the power to make a final determination but to take seven years to make that decision is unconscionable and unproductive.  Further, who is responsible at PwC to question why a simple voluntary liquidation should take almost seven years and counting.  If a reputable organization like PwC can’t get a simple voluntary liquidation completed in a reasonable time, then Trinidad & Tobago is doomed!

A Fractured Cabinet ..

The past few weeks have left me stunned by the antics of our leadership. Penny, Marlene, Burkee, Simonette, Espinet, Quamina … I can go on and on, but there is one common theme: they were headlined in the media because of some act of incompetence by the leadership of our country. This single-term government has stumbled from issue to issue, and every time I think it can’t get worse, something worse happens.

How can two government ministers sit in the same post-cabinet news conference and have a fundamental disagreement on any issue? In this case, the issue was the appointment of the CEO to manage Heritage Petroleum. One minister said that there will be a search for a replacement, while the other talked about allowing the CEO to operate remotely.

Photo: Former Heritage Petroleum CEO Mike Wylie (via Trinidad Guardian)

My conclusion from this public display is that the cabinet is so fractured that they can’t even keep ‘on message’ in the public. That says that the Ship of State is in the hands of a captain who is still clocking his hours to certification. We are in a danger zone and every decision taken will impact our quality of life for the next generation and beyond.

From the onset, the closure of Petrotrin and the establishment of the holding company was contentious. As a citizen, I saw another example of autocratic leadership and duplicity. The closure was presented as a fait accompli when a few months before, the headline was that the union and the management were working towards a way forward with the restructuring of Petrotrin.

We have squandered another opportunity to motivate our people to change our work ethic. If it was aimed at union-busting, then it failed. Unions are here to stay, so at all levels of our society, we have to find a way to work with unions or employee associations called by other names.

Heritage CEO, Mike Wylie, may have come in with the best intentions, but something went wrong with the process of selection. How thorough was the medical and why is compensation being considered when he is unable to function in the manner for which he was hired?

Former chairman Espinet has functioned as an effective hatchet man to transition Petrotrin into Trinidad Petroleum Holdings Limited (TPHL). Does anyone else wonder what happened for him to be removed so unceremoniously? Poor Quamina, a nice guy, a competent attorney, but an on-the-job-trainee (OJT) in the energy sector. So we stumble on.

Photo: Michael Quamina with Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi (via Trinidad Guardian)

In other countries, the population would be clamouring for transparency and accountability about these major decisions. There would be a loud demand for collaboration among cabinet colleagues instead of the public stumbling which occurred in the post-cabinet news conference. In looking at the board composition for these four companies, I also wonder out loud about the absence of women.

TPHL BOARD: Michael Quamina (Chairman), Reynold Adjodhasingh (Deputy), Newman George, Anthony Chan Tack, Joel Harding, Selwyn Lashley, Eustace Nancis.

HERITAGE BOARD: Michael Quamina (Chairman), Newman George (Deputy), Reynold Adjodhasingh, Selwyn Lashley, Joel Harding, Ryan Toby, George Leonard Lewis, Peter Clarke, Reeza Saleem.

PARIA BOARD: Newman George (Chairman), Eustance Nancis, Christine Sahadeo, Peter Clarke, Reeza Saleem.

GUARACARA BOARD: Newman George (Chairman), Anthony Chan Tack, Peter Clarke, Christine Sahadeo.

Are we so afraid to challenge that this travesty will be allowed to play out over the next 15 months to 7 September 2020?

Invasion of Privacy; Why release of alleged Justice Lucky recording should concern us all!

A feeling of fear covered me as I read a recent report of a recording of a private conversation allegedly between Justice Gillian Lucky and another person. I was further panicked because the Trinidad Expressnewspaper got hold of the tape, transcribed it and used it as a news story.

Where was the moment of pause to ask the question: is this the right thing to do? Is this the only way this story could be covered? Is it news at any cost? I know the answer will be that it was already out on social media, but does that make it right?

Photo: High Court Judge Gillian Lucky.

Shouldn’t there be some institution monitoring such releases or are we now in a free-for-all in which your conversations can be recorded without your knowledge or consent and used as someone else deems necessary? If you can tape the conversation of the judge and use it in this way, what will you do to an ordinary citizen?

Something is wrong with this scenario and it makes me feel that yet another of my freedoms is being violated. What will be next?

Facebook and other social media can operate according to the law of the jungle, but the state needs to play a role in protecting the rights of citizens. A huge deterrent to deviant behaviour is swift punishment. The source of the release of this recording should be swiftly tracked down and punished, if only for it to act as a deterrent to others who may feel it fair game to tape another’s conversation without their knowledge and use it without appropriate authority.

Every citizen should be afraid; not because big brother is listening, but because the systems which should be protecting our privacy do not exist or are being ignored. How is it that a private citizen’s phone call can be recorded, but we still have the police saying the hit was ordered from inside the prisons and they do not have the voice recording to be able to punish the perpetrator?

Is it that we are selectively targeting citizens? And if we are, should there be some publicised criteria so that citizens are aware of what will be flagged for recording by the state? How is it that someone who has the capacity to monitor and record the conversation of the judge can distribute the information with no penalty?

Photo: Tackling cybercrime…

The steps are small from state surveillance, to censorship, to harassment and indefinite detention (Bail Bill). The steps from citizen surveillance to blackmail are even smaller.

I am all in favour of using the best technology for our common good, but there has to be known guidelines and citizens must be aware of the boundaries. There must be standards and practices which are adhered to and punishments dispensed for breeches.

We need systems and processes to protect our privacy and a clear understanding of how to access these systems and processes.