Fast fix needed at Trinidad & Tobago Consulate

It would probably be difficult to find a group that was more relieved at the ouster of the regime led by former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar than employees, past and current, at the Trinidad and Tobago Consulate in New York whose employment was, in some instances summarily terminated, in others, compromised to levels more befitting a 19th century workplace. As the former government ploughed on, the consulate workers’ plight did not go unnoticed by outside elements, including media and various community-based organizations that weighed in on what seemed some high-handed action by then Consul General Nan Ramgoolam, or perhaps superiors whose bidding she did — Suruj Rambachan, the foreign affairs minister or Bissessar herself. But no amount of dramatizing the surreal turn of events the New York Consulate had undergone could move the needle.

One might read into actions by the Bissessar team soon after they took office, designs on the New York Consulate for swiftly placing their own imprimatur on operations there. Literally within days of the administration coming on board in May, 2010, an attaché in New York (along with other staffers elsewhere) was informed of being terminated. And Minister Rambachan, whose unabashedly racist sentiments are no secret, made known in an early visit to the consulate his aim of having the staff include more Indo-Trinidadians.

A questionable examination Ramgoolam introduced to be used for determining the fitness of staff to work at the consulate became a huge bone of contention. It was criticized in many quarters (including the former head of Trinidad and Tobago’s public service) as a flawed barometer for measuring who should and shouldn’t be consulate employees. The upshot, nevertheless, was that a number of workers, including several long-serving ones, were let go.

Compounding matters was the draconian reconfiguration of the consulate environment with respect to conditions of employment. The new order was that employees — again including several with 10, 15 and even more years of service — had their former two-year contract arrangement now replaced by a six-month deal that was stripped bare of any benefits. The new terms called for a contract with no paid sick leave, no paid leave of any kind, with wage deductions made for late arrival at work for any reason. And with the crowning indignity of employees being forced to be off the job for one week without pay when the six-month term is winding down, in order to sign a new six-month deal! These were the conditions of employment for employees at the New York Consulate beginning in 2012 — conditions that endure to the present time.

Those shockingly regressive terms of service (we’re tempted to say “servitude”) are just as preposterous today as when we first got wind of them a few years ago. It is altogether unconscionable that any employer, let alone a democratic government as employer, would think to impose employment guidelines that so flagrantly flout norms of decency and fair play in the modern workplace. Frankly, one wonders whether, notwithstanding this being a foreign government entity operating on American soil, there isn’t some provision in U.S. or New York law to have compelled the former T&T government to conform to labor code stipulations in this city, in light of U.S. citizens and lawful residents being victimized.

But what perhaps most stretches credulity about what’s happening with the consulate staff is that the conditions are unique to the New York Consulate. This abomination, now in its fourth year in New York, doesn’t exist in any other T&T legation on U.S. soil or elsewhere. And the best that has been heard by way of explanation for some obvious blundering, was that the changes were intended for all offices, but somehow were instituted only at New York Consulate. So there!

Now that Bissessar and her underlings have been sent packing, there is understandable angst among folks at the consulate who continue to slog through atrocious working conditions they’ve had to abide all this time. The current foreign affairs minister, Dennis Moses, as well as Prime Minister Keith Rowley are well aware of this protracted injustice.

Picking up after a government that was both corrupt and reckless, Rowley and company had their strained fiscal circumstances challenged further by the precipitous decline in world energy prices. A government’s plea for tolerance from the public in the face of severe economic shock is to be expected. At the same time, though, it’s clear that the T&T government cannot afford to further delay rectifying that shameful employee situation at the New York Consulate. It smears the country’s good name, never mind who was responsible for creating what should be rightly called a national embarrassment.

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