Sunday, 25 January 2015

Fighting for Sugar Belt

From :,206046.html
By Verne Burnett Sunday, January 25 2015
A trade union becomes a political party, and a bright young man makes another bid in his second general election. This is the focus of today’s Face-Off 2015 series, examining the emergence of the National Solidarity Assembly and the New National Vision.
The recently formed National Solidarity Assembly (NSA) would have liked to contest 16 to 17 seats in the 2015 general election but Nirvan Maharaj, general secretary of the All Trinidad General Workers Trade Union, political leader of the party, says that because of a lack of resources he is looking at fighting only seven seats.

Acknowledging that even if the party wins all seven seats it would not have much leverage or power in a House of Representatives of 41 seats, Maharaj said the NSA was a new organisation, and because it is, he says, “we do not have the resources to contest an election as we should.”

Fate of ex-Caroni workers 

“We can’t challenge the Government in the media and we can’t challenge them and the Opposition with the millions of dollars they are readily able to access for huge election campaigns,” Maharaj tells Sunday Newsday.

“What we have to do is to go to the ground. So we will be fighting these elections at the ground (level) - house to house. That takes a lot of time and logistics. So it is really a start. What we are really saying is that before you can walk you have to crawl, and a journey of a million miles begins with the first step and we are willing to take this first step.”

Maharaj said for the last three years the union has been articulating the concerns of the former Caroni Limited workers and trying to expedite the distribution of leases for plots of agricultural and residential land promised them when they accepted voluntary separation of employment (VSEP) packages from the then government of the People’s National Movement (PNM) when the State sugar company, Caroni 1975 Limited, was closed down in 2003.

“We have a situation where a number of issues came up,” Maharaj said, “And 11 years after, there are still thousands of people who have been unable to access their residential lots, for example.”

He added: “You have situations where there was a lack of infrastructural development of the lands that they were supposed to get. You have situations where people got leases for agricultural land where there was no infrastructural development and they couldn’t even access the land. Some didn’t even know where the lands were located. We even asked that Caroni workers should not have to pay for a residential lot because that was part of their VSEP package and it was illogical in law for a man to have to pay for his own severance.”

Maharaj continued, “We have had many ministerial meetings and we were made many promises but up to this point you have (only) a few leases being given out, and some of these leases are not accompanied by infrastructural development as mandated by the Deyalsingh Judgment of 2007, and you still have over 5,000 ex-Caroni workers to get residential lots.”

“The time has come for this Government to take care of those people who have supported it for generations because the base of the United National Congress (UNC) has always been the ex-Caroni workers and it is illogical to us that you get into office with 29 seats, and four and a half years after you are still making statements that it’s a slow process and work is underway and you are unable to expedite the issues. And we are saying this because the Deyalsingh Judgment of 2007 said the government, if it so wishes, had the power and the resources to expedite the process if necessary.

“How is it that you give gifts, you give handouts to all segments of the population but enough money has not been allocated to take care of the ex-Caroni workers and their issues?” Maharaj wondered.

Sugar politics

Maharaj saw no problem with the fact that the NSA has been formed based mainly on articulating the issues of the former Caroni workers because most groups and most organisations are started to serve the interests of a particular group and then it expands.

Maintaining that he and the NSA are as concerned and able to speak on national issues such as crime and national security, Maharaj said in the formation of the assembly the Ex-Caroni Workers Association, the All Trinidad General Workers Trade Union and the Pan Boilers Association of Trinidad and Tobago came together last year and decided that they had no choice but to escalate the struggle to the level of electoral politics. The new party was registered in October/November 2014.

Maharaj said that “win, lose, draw or runoff”the NSA would put up candidates in several of the constituencies in the Sugar Belt. Maharaj said he was looking at the forthcoming general election as an opportunity for the ex-Caroni workers themselves to give the new political entity a mandate to continue the struggle “because a struggle cannot continue indefinitely.”

He explained how he saw the party taking a mandate from the election: “If there are a thousand ex-Caroni workers in Couva North and we get 800 votes, whether we win, lose or draw the election we know that those 800 votes are saying to us ‘continue the struggle on our behalf’ because those are the people we would have been articulating for.

Maharaj insisted that he is in politics for the long haul, adding the Local Government Elections are coming up.

“This is an organisation that I intend to continue,” he said. “It is not simply for the 2015 general elections.”

Admitting most of the issues being articulated by the newly formed political entity would resonate more readily among East Indians, Maharaj said that although the majority of daily-paid workers in the former Caroni Limited were East Indians there were many people of African and other ethnic origins who worked at the company and there were many people of other races who supported Basdeo Panday and the UNC because of the sugar industry.

He said he did not take up the struggle because of race, but because the union which he headed had the legitimate bargaining rights for these workers and still does and because Caroni Limited still exists even though it is in skeleton form.

Race not a factor 

“My duty was to ensure, regardless of race, colour or creed that every single ex-Caroni worker gets what is due to them and that is what the struggle was about really. And when I saw that it was almost fruitless, that the issues were not being expedited, this is when the National Solidarity Assembly was formed and we decided as a principled stand on behalf of the ex-Caroni workers in the Sugar Belt that we were going to contest certain seats to get a mandate from them to continue the struggle on their behalf.”

Maharaj said that in the period between 2003 and 2010 there was a perception that the matter had died and this was not because of the appeal but because those at the helm of the union did not do what they were supposed to do. He claimed the issues that he had raised about the government’s commitments to the former Caroni workers and the efforts he has made to have the matter resolved could and should have been done between 2003 - 2010 after the industry was shut down. “The only time these issues came back to the front burner was in 2012 when I took the helm of the union,” he said.
He said these efforts should have been made by Rudy Indarsingh as leader of the union and the others who were in leadership positions but there was an unnatural silence from the union between 2003, when the sugar industry was shut down, and 2010 when the UNC and the People’s Partnership won the general election and Indarsingh became a member of the Government.

He said the then leaders of the union might claim there was nothing they could have done because Justice Deyalsingh’s 2007 order that every single ex-Caroni worker should get what was due to them was appealed to the Privy Council by the PNM. 

He said that despite the appeal the All Trinidad General Workers Trade Union could have agitated on the issue and insisted that it must be settled as he has been doing since he became president general of the union. There never was any judgment forthcoming from the Privy Council on the appeal because when the new People’s Partnership Government came into power in 2010 among its first acts was to order that the appeal be withdrawn. Maharaj said that if the government withdrew the appeal then the original Deyalsingh judgment should stand.

He said many ex-Caroni workers had stopped coming to Rienzi Complex and had given up hope and become frustrated largely due to the failure of the union to deal with this issue in a meaningful way.