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THA Secretary of Food Production, Forestry and Fisheries Hayden Spencer.

Hundreds of young Tobagonians from Tobago East who were hired just after the August 10 General Election have been sent home because of an “administrative” glitch.

The confirmation came from Secretary for the Division of Food Production, Forestry and Fisheries Hayden Spencer in response to Guardian Media’s query as to the reason the workers have been sent home three weeks after they were hired in October.

Spencer, the People’s National Movement’s area representative for the Belle Garden/Goodwood, said the project, financed by public funds, is being handled by the “political arm of the party.”

Guardian Media understands the Forestry department hired the workers for the Tobago Reforestation and Watershed Rehabilitation Co Ltd. They were allegedly handpicked from among supporters of one political party, leaving many unemployed persons to claim workers were hired based on political bias. However, soon after the workers were employed the project was closed, leaving workers confused.

The division engaged the services of 350 people—35 each from 10 electoral districts, with the mandate to replant 15,000 acres of forest, Guardian Media was told. Of the 350 people, an accountant, project manager and other senior staff were also hired.

According to a source close to the project, some of the people hired to oversee the programme are unqualified.

“We are told the Secretary (name given) handpicked the accountant and she cannot even make up a pay sheet, so what is she being paid to do? Where is the board of directors – nobody knows what is going on?” the source said.

A Roxborough resident also claimed Tobago House of Assembly officials from the division visited the area asking if people were interested in an “early morning work.”

The resident, who asked to remain unidentified, said she was advised to gather at least 30 “faithful” people and apply for a contract with the Tobago Reforestation and Watershed. She said she was happy about the employment but is now worried as the workers have been demanding answers from her.

“We began working in early October, not even a month after they sent us back home,” she said.

“This is not the first time we are hearing about a Forestry programme but it was a national programme, famous for not paying staff on time and recently the programme was shut down in Trinidad.”

She fears the unexpected shutdown of the project is a “bad sign” that she and others are being used to secure votes only to be told “things are hard” after the THA elections.

According to a source at the Division of Food Production Forestry and Fisheries, they are documents referring to the Tobago Reforestation and Watershed Rehabilitation Co Ltd as far back as 2016 but nothing was put in place until a few weeks ago. Division workers were asked to make way for senior staff and also initiate paperwork that would facilitate payment.

They were told that the company would be financed by “subventions” from the division.

Guardian Media sought a response from the Project Manager, Maxlon Roberts, on the allegations.

Roberts, who was one of the candidates recently screened by the PNM for the Roxborough/Delaford district, said the project was put on hold due to some “outstanding administrative issues.”

He said he was not aware employees were sent to the various districts. He also could not say why the positions in the programme were not advertised.

THA responds

Secretary in the Division of Food Production Forestry and Fisheries Hayden Spencer also confirmed that the employees were sent to work but were recalled “due to some incomplete administrative anomalies.”

“There were several things that needed to be settled, such as the signing of an MOU between the Rural Development Company in Trinidad and the Tobago Reforestation and Watershed Rehabilitation Co. Ltd and other issues in terms of wages and that kind of thing,” Spencer told Guardian Media.

Asked why the positions were not advertised, he said it was not necessary to do so.

“No, no, no, basically this a social programme that is handled by the political arm so, therefore, the company that is charged with handling this matter will deal with all those issues because this is a company to company arrangement.”

He said the issues “should be resolved” with the next two weeks.