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CHAMBER SHOWS HAND WITH ATTACK ON INDUSTRIAL COURT by Timothy Bailey

posted 30 Oct 2018, 17:26 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 30 Oct 2018, 17:36 ]

Timothy Bailey: Industrial Relations Specialist, Chief Labour Relations Officer Steel Workers Union of Trinidad & Tobago.

I write this article with deep concern about the agenda of various individuals and groups with regards to the Industrial Court of Trinidad and Tobago (“the Court”). Behind the guise of genuine concern about the local industrial relations culture, climate and the role of the Court, we observe a frontal and strategic attack on the Industrial Court.

Numerous columns, opinions and even a video have been circulated recently via traditional and social media attacking the integrity of the Court. On the heels of the granted injunction by the Honourable Court against Petrotrin, the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce (“the Chamber”) sought to immediately challenge the applicability of the labour and industrial relations laws.

The Chamber has further attempted to confuse the public claiming that it had evidence to prove that the actions of the Court and trade unions did not improve the employment environment and quality of life.

In this article, I will focus on Item 3 of the Chamber’s circulated document and also in columns circulated via local print media.

Item 3 reads: The Industrial Court’s ruling in favour of the Steel Workers’ Union of Trinidad and Tobago resulted in the shutdown of the ArcelorMittal operations in Trinidad. The company was put into liquidation and – since the company was insolvent – the employees received no severance pay.

The above statement that the ruling in favour of the Steel Workers’ Union of Trinidad and Tobago (“the Union”) resulted in the shutdown of ArcelorMittal (“the Company”) is erroneous to say the least. What it shows is a lack of research of the facts surrounding the actual closure.

The facts on the closure of Arcelor Mittal are as follows:

In Q4 of 2013, a new Managing Director - Canadian citizen Mr. Robert Bellisle - was appointed by the ArcelorMittal Group. Mr. Bellisle specialized in mergers and acquisitions and was hired to renegotiate contracts with national utility companies like T&TEC and NGC whose contracts were approaching expiration.

In Q1 of 2014, ArcelorMittal Chairman and CEO Mr. Lakshmi Mittal paid a visit to Trinidad. Some weeks later, ArcelorMittal global
Lakshmi Mittal
management Directors Mr. Jeferson de Paula and Mr. Louis Schorsch paid visits to Trinidad as well. Both individuals met with the management and executive of the Union and stated that Mr. Mittal wanted the profit margin for the Trinidad segment to increase.

The local company had made a profit of US$40 million in the previous financial year and Mr. Mittal wanted to increase profit to US$120 million which would allow for greater capital investment into the facility. Both individuals left and a few months later the dumping of Turkish and Chinese steel had climaxed and affected the global market tremendously. At the same time, negotiations with T&TEC and NGC were failing due mainly to Mr. Bellisle’s attitude. This was compounded by his statements that Trinidad and Tobago was a “banana republic” and that the General Manager of T&TEC thought he was chief negotiator when he proposed a new rate of $110 per kwh which did not previously exist in T&TEC’s rate chart.

He threatened to bring the government of this country “to its knees” then proceeded to operate the various plants at half or less than their respective capacities resulting in an immediate split in the utility bills, due to huge reductions in the usage of electricity and natural gas. He also ordered new machinery, equipment, plant parts and spares for a proposed overhaul and a large shutdown of various plants without paying the parent company, thus incurring a large amount of debt with the parent company and various subsidiary companies.

As a result, the Mittal group became the largest creditor on the current creditors listing with its parent and other subsidiary companies being owed approximately 90% of the liabilities listed as owed to creditors.

From 2014 until November 2015, the Company and the Union met and executed numerous agreements to ensure that the Company remained operational to the extent that the Union’s loyalty began to be questioned by its membership. In December 2015, the Company proposed that the Union agree to its membership being forced on vacation while management personnel remained on the job. The Union responded that it needed to meet with its members.

At a meeting with its general council, Union officials/members unanimously rejected the proposal. The Union then informed the Company that it was free to engage its workers individually but the Union would not make the proposal to its members. Immediately following this, the Company laid off all unionized employees for three months which were divided into two six-week periods at the instruction of Mr. Bellisle who was recorded verbally stating the company’s plan.

During those three months, approximately 110 ArcelorMittal management personnel, whose remuneration packages exceeded the combined total package of the 500 laid-off unionised workers, were all retained with full salaries while unionized workers went home empty-handed for Christmas. It is worth noting that Mr. Bellisle’s salary was said to be US$93,000 per month and while in Trinidad, he opted to live in a gated community in Westmoorings and not in one of the four company houses built as accommodations for the Chairman and CEO and Managing Director in Central Park, Valsayn and Goodwood Park.

Under these circumstances, the Union was forced to seek relief for its members and on March 10 2016, the Court ruled that the company had undertaken illegal industrial actions against the workers. It is now recorded in history that the very next day the Company terminated every single employee and went into voluntary liquidation. The reasons given to the media by Mr. De Paula were poor market conditions and uncompetitive conditions due to increases in utility prices.

What Mr.De Paula did not admit, however, is that this action was well-orchestrated. The intercompany debt was deliberately created prior to and during the three-month lay-off of workers. Every loose inventory item of value was shipped and relocated to a sister company. On average the Company held between US$55-80 million in product, material and spares in its inventory. Once every movable asset was removed by trucking and shipping, the Company engaged the services of a reputable international auditing firm (PWC) to evaluate the company and it has been in a state of voluntary liquidation ever since.

Image result for trinidad steelworkers industrial courtThe statements published and circulated by the Chamber are erroneous. It is ironic that when ArcelorMittal took its planned actions against nationals of this country, this Chamber and these popular columnists did not care to speak out against them. Rather, the Chamber chose to remain silent. No time or resources were made available to challenge the injustices against the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago perpetrated by this Company. Today, however, the Chamber is leading the charge to discredit the Industrial Court.

To the Chamber I ask: What is your objective? To destabilize one of our few remaining sovereign institutions and disenfranchise our national labour force? Should the Steel Workers’ Union have allowed ArcelorMittal to lay off its 500 employees without pay while 110 management personnel remained employed with full salaries? Should the Industrial Court have dismissed the Union’s case and ignored the right of every worker to natural justice even with the evidence presented before it?

To the Chamber: silence is consent and by your actions (and selective inaction), you have already shown the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago your hand.
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