National Trade Union Centre general secretary Michael Annisette is urging Government to find a way to pay wages to casino, bar, gym, members’ clubs and waterpark workers who will be sent home during the new 28-day shutdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Speaking to Guardian Media yesterday, Annisette said these low income workers who will be temporarily sent home are considered the “most vulnerable” in society and for Government to say they have limited funding to cushion the blow of those impacted was “unacceptable” to his union.
“We do not buy into that narrative. Because we have found money to do all kinds of things when it suits us,” Annisette said as he noted Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s inability to commit to providing financial support to the workers after announcing the new rollback measures last Saturday.
The measures went into effect yesterday and will remain in place for 28 days. Annisette said by sending these low-income workers home, social ills will develop in society.
“If this blows up in our faces we will live to regret this. I am saying as long as they are vulnerable people who are placed in a disadvantaged situation, due to no fault of their own, we have a responsibility. Our leadership must set a higher standard and do things by example,” he said.
He said the economy cannot be separated from its workforce.
“So, when you shut down the casinos you are in effect affecting the economy. There is a moral responsibility to ensure that these people are protected.”
Annisette said NATUC is willing to represent the workers who may have no one to turn to.
He said COVID community spread was expected in T&T because while other countries had put off their general elections to save the lives of their citizens, we went ahead with ours.
“If we don’t put our collective wisdom together on this matter, we are going to see issues,” he said.
“I would like to see the Government and Opposition working together on this matter. This is not about politics anymore. We have to forget about petty differences. Forget about who like who and who didn’t vote for who and work together.”
T&T Members’ Club Association president Sherry Persad meanwhile described the move by Rowley as “harsh,” saying thousands in the gaming industry, many of whom were single mothers, are now jobless.
“This is devastating for the industry. We are calling on the Prime Minister to rethink his position because COVID-19 is something we have to live with,” Persad said.
She said the PM could have considered reducing the opening hours of casinos and member clubs to keep the businesses operational. Persad said many casino owners had spent a lot of money to ensure customers follow health protocols, while security officers were ensuring clients practiced physical distancing.
“We are not a congregating establishment. We have not been doing anything wrong. Why target our industry? The gaming industry was never an issue, even when the ministry kept saying that patrons in bars were not wearing face masks and practising social distancing.”
She pointed out that during the first three-month lockdown of businesses, gaming workers were not paid salaries by their employers. And when the economy reopened in June, Persad said some employees’ working days were reduced from five to three because their employers’ funding had dried up.
“Quite a few of these workers were in tears yesterday saying they don’t know how they will make ends meet. It has left them feeling hopeless and helpless,” she said.
“For three months they managed by the grace of God without a salary. They returned to work a few weeks ago and received half of an income. Now they are getting nothing. How will they survive?”
She said dozens of workers who applied for salary and rent relief grants from the Government during the first lockdown are also still awaiting their cheques.
A lack of business, Persad said, could also cause casinos to shut their doors.
“The future looks grim for us.”
Confederation of Regional Business Chamber coordinator Jai Leladharsingh also said the roll back measures “would be a hard slam on existing businesses.” He estimated over 3,000 workers will be temporarily out of jobs, of which 75 per cent are women.
“I could understand that the government does not have the financial resources to deal with it. But they need to find innovative ways of financing to support these people,” Leladharsingh said.
One option, he said, was to knock on the door of the United Nations to see what support services we can get.
“We have good relationships with China, who has a bottomless pit of money. We could ask for some grants. We could also speak with the World Bank, of which we are a member and ask for some grants. It could be done. You need a good Minister of Finance. We in the private sector stand by to assist the government or help outsource financing.”
The confederation represents 14 business bodies across the country.
Leladharsingh said T&T was going through one of its roughest times and workers will face dire circumstances.
“I am very worried,” he said, adding if the country has to face another lockdown Government has to come up with a different approach “because the engine of the economy has to continue to run and private sector needs to operate.”