Where we stand‎ > ‎News & Comment‎ > ‎


posted 31 Oct 2014, 06:40 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 31 Oct 2014, 06:50 ]

Vincent Cabrera, President of the Banking, Insurance and General Workers Union (BIGWU) delivered the president’s address at the sixth biennial

conference of the union, on October 25th at the Standards Bureau Auditorium, Macoya. We publish below an edited excerpt from that address dealing with the questions of inequality and labour law reform. The entire address is available here


The history of Caribbean society has been a history characterized by extreme oppression and inequality. The obvious question here is why does the society behave as though inequality has never existed? What have we done since independence to reverse or decrease the level of societal inequality? Have our political parties properly analysed this matter of inherent inequality? Have the various religions deliberately ignored that matter? Does the political and the judicial system buttress inequality in our society?


And what of the trade union movement itself? Do all trade unions see the battle against inequality as necessary or valid? Are the policies of trade unions designed to combat inequality or are we unconsciously promoting inequality?   There are many types of inequality, inclusive of inequality among countries and social inequality.


In a 2007 Global report titled “Equality at Work: Tackling the Challenge”, the ILO comments, and I quote “… significant and persistent inequalities in income, assets and opportunities dilute the effectiveness of any action aimed at combating discrimination. This may lead to political instability and social upheaval, which upsets investment and economic growth.” 

The labour market generates unacceptable levels of inequality. Income inequality is perhaps the most immediate and the most relevant form of inequality for workers in general and for trade unions and their members in particular. I submit that there is a definite correlation between levels of inequality and the relative power of trade unions.

Where the employers are stronger the level of inequality is increased. This balance of power is largely determined by government policy, legislation and the extent of unionisation existing within the labour market.

Nowhere is income inequality as extreme as in the finance sector which is the very engine of the capitalist system. As traditional industries are converted into sunset industries and as more emphasis is placed on the invisible economy as distinct from the real economy, more workers are being employed within the finance sector which includes banks, insurance companies, credit unions, mutual funds, etc. 

In dealing with the trade union response to inequality, the first challenge is the extremely great difficulty which researchers face in the Caribbean as a whole in collecting or sourcing reliable data. While in developed jurisdictions compensation rates for CEO’s are known, in Trinidad and Tobago such data is not easily available.

Finance managers have ensured that the disparity in salary income within financial organizations remains a glaring example of income inequality. Remember that the CEO has access to stock options and golden handshakes. Clearly, financial institutions value the CEO more than the worker. Yet the CEO by himself can do precious little without workers by way of implementation of policy.

No one will argue against wage differentials but we estimate that the capitalist system places a value of one CEO being worth two hundred times more than the average worker. A recently published TUC report coming out of the United Kingdom and titled “Executive Excess” provided a snap shot of top company directors pay and showed that the salary gap can be as much as sixteen hundred to one.

This report provides a variety of data tables, presenting information on top directors’ total earnings and basic salary alongside average employee pay. In Trinidad and Tobago, in the area of income inequality, a 2007 – 2008 report illustrates that CEO pay increased by more than fifty percent over a five year period. Executive pay is cited as having more than doubling over the period to an annual average of $963,234.00.

The comparison between this and general wage increases strongly suggests that the share of national income allocated to wage earners in contrast to executive compensation earners and others in the professional management stream is grossly unequal, corroborating the observation that that growing income inequality is one of the negative features of globalization.

In a recent statement, Professor Emeritus Dr. James Millette said and I quote “Banks, insurance companies and other financial companies have become major players in the fields of industry and commerce, in high stakes speculation and leveraging in the world’s most important commodities, and the world’s most valuable assets. For many of them it is an all or nothing game, facilitated by the generosity of the world’s largest central banks and the world’s most powerful countries. Many of them are now considered ‘too big to fail’ and in the final analysis extraordinary measures to save them from liquidation and bankruptcy’ at the tax payer’s expense, have become common place.”

The module used by Howai at CLICO is beyond logic. The state used taxpayers’ money to bail out CLICO, only to announce his government’s intention to abandon the much heralded ATRIUS, and surrender the company to the private sector. When we compare this with the treatment meted out to the retrenched workers of CLICO, CIB and British American Company that comparison would show a total disrespect for ethics and industrial relations principle on the part of the Central Bank and the Minister of Finance. State funding made TTMF a giant in housing finance; it is a pity to see the economic arrangement turned around in favour of the private sector and to the detriment of aspiring homeowners.

A few days ago the Business Guardian sought to give the impression that bank workers had been gaining wage increases at a faster rate than the rate of increase in shareholder value. This of course is a total fabrication. We did the maths. Profits and increase in shareholder value far outstrip increases in wages at every turn. For every three year period, the rate of increase in profits posted by the finance houses far outweighs the rate of increase in workers’ wages. During the period referred to by the BG, out of the eight banks mentioned, the union negotiated collective agreements for workers at Republic Bank and First Citizens.

Analysis would show that salaries increased at Republic Bank by fifty-one percent over a ten year period or by an average of ten percent an annum. This is far less than the 144 percent increase falsely and inaccurately printed by the BG.

The article forgot to deal with accumulated inflation of 76 percent which severely eroded purchasing power of workers. If we look at our patterns of application of wage increases, we will see that application of strict percentage wage increases, to which we have become accustomed, serves to provide for an ever increasing wage differential between jobs. The concept of equality within a bargaining unit seems to have disappeared. 

Every additional dollar gained through collective bargaining is another step in decreasing income inequality. Government will do well in internalizing this concept and stop being an aggressor to trade unions in their efforts to improve the standard of living of working people who are the people that really run this economy minute by minute every minute of the day.


Various governments since Independence have chosen to introduce labour legislation which regulates and limits trade union activity thus tilting the balance of power in favour of employers. Employment law has always been based on regulations. Let me say for the umpteenth time; our labour laws do not meet the established international labour standards. When will we get a government that will be conscious enough to put an end to the embarrassment faced by Trinidad and Tobago every June, when the Standards Committee releases its report in Geneva?

We have the worst employment laws in the Caribbean and the absolute worst laws for granting workers the right to collective bargaining. Just imagine it took the RRCB (editor’s note: Registration Recognition and Certification Board) five years to process BIGWU’s claim for recognition at the Central Bank and already our application for certification at the Royal Bank have been postponed for four years. Royal Bank, the most viciously anti union bank in our country, has retrenched over three hundred workers and is now forcing workers to work on Saturdays.

Perhaps the greatest scandal pertaining to the State’s administration of labour matters lies in the fact that after almost a year the Government has failed to reconstitute the Registration, Recognition and Certification Board. While the Hon. Errol McLeod was a trade union leader, he like other trade union leaders condemned the then government over the same matter. It is ironic now that McLeod the Minister has an opportunity to fix things he has not done so.

Worst Labour Minister ever
Indeed there are many in the labour fraternity who say that he has performed worse than any of his predecessors. Thousands of workers in this country are being denied the right to collective bargaining because of an archaic system of certifying trade unions exacerbated by the non-appointment of a new Board after the expiry of the life of the old Board on 10th January 2014. This is a national scandal!

Workers rights to collective bargaining are being denied and this matter affects all trade unions.  I wish to use this occasion of our Conference of Delegates to call for a rights based system of industrial relations in Trinidad and Tobago. Our society is based on denial of rights to the majority. Today our trade union rights have been denied. This must stop! We demand that workers rights be appropriately protected. The law must be clear on workers’ rights.

Panday’s UNC introduced the concept of a universal minimum wage. That regime chose not to amend the nefarious Industrial Relations Act. Manning’s PNM passed a watered down Occupational Safety and Health Act. Persad-Bissessar’s Partnership legislated Maternity Leave of fourteen weeks but it must be noted that a few trade unions including BIGWU had already achieved that standard in some collective agreements.

Failing in its undertaking to amend the IRA, despite the Industrial Relations Advisory Committee (IRAC), having already submitted its report to the cabinet, this government has displayed a most disgraceful performance as far as reform of Labour legislation is concerned. I understand that a consultancy has been awarded to have the matter forwarded. It is almost certain that given the several layers of bureaucracy to which legislation is subjected before assent and proclamation, that we will not see any new law to amend or replace the IRA before the upcoming elections.

Labour legislation will not be pursued with the same vigour and energy as say, the constitutional amendment to introduce run off. Research has shown that the IRA itself was passed within a period of twenty four hours. Legislation can be rushed through both houses of parliament when the ruling class sees the need to repress the working class or to give a legislative pass out of jail to their friends and financiers. Section 34 and the Run Off law were treated with an urgency that the PP government has not attached to labour legislation.

Precarious work has exploded exponentially in this country. Manning entrenched contract labour in the public sector and Persad-Bissessar ensured its proliferation. Labour officers at the Ministry of Labour are all employed on very short term contracts. Not one is a public servant employed within the public service. Imagine we have to appear before contracted labour to grieve contract labour issues. BIGWU supports the ratification of ILO Convention 189 and the inclusion of domestic workers within the definition of workers in the legislation.

Gerry Kangalee,
31 Oct 2014, 06:43