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By Jada Loutoo Friday, July 4 2014

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WORKERS at the Immigration Department have been ordered back on the job after the Minister of Labour successfully obtained an injunction from the Industrial Court putting an end to the seven-week long protest action at the department’s offices in Port-of-Spain and San Fernando.

At a late evening emergency hearing yesterday, Industrial Court president Deborah Thomas- Felix, and judges Lawrence Achong, Albert Aberdeen, Kyril Jack and Kathleen George-Marcell granted the injunction, applied for ex parte by Labour Minister Error Mc Leod under the provisions of the Industrial Relations Act Chapter 88:01.

Representing the Minister in the Industrial Court were Senior Counsel Russell Martineau, Addison Khan and Derek Ali.

According to the order granted, the Public Services Association (PSA), its president, Watson Duke, and members are restrained from taking and continuing to take industrial action at any of the offices of the Immigration Division or immigration stations, places of detention, ports of entry or any premises under control of the division.

They are also restrained from taking industrial action or continuing to take such action.

The injunction was sought after National Security Minister Gary Griffith referred the issue to Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, who advised, following an emergency meeting with ministers Griffith and McLeod on Wednesday, that injunctive relief be sought to put an end to the situation.

McLeod, in his affidavit, said he was of the considered opinion that the national interest of Trinidad and Tobago was threatened and affected by the action taken by the PSA, its president and workers at the Immigration Department.

“It is clear to me that the Public Services Association, its officers, servants and or agents and /or its members and/or Immigration Department workers have deliberately embarked upon a course of conduct intended to compel the Government to agree to certain demands in respect of terms and conditions of employment in respect of civil servants without regard to the consequences for the people of Trinidad and Tobago, the national interest, or the provisions of the Immigration Act,” the minister said.

The PSA and the Chief Personnel Officer are currently in negotiations for revised terms and conditions for 2010 to 2013 for public servants.

According to the minister, the action of the staff of the Immigration Department has resulted in members of the public being unable to obtain or renew their passports.

Also affected by the seven-week long disruption in service at the Immigration Department were operations in the energy sector, Mc Leod said.

Offshore oil and gas workers have been unable to get work permits renewed and those already in the country are unable to get their work status regularised, he added.

McLeod further added that the industrial action being taken by immigration staff was also having an adverse effect on the international image of the country. “Over the last seven weeks my attention has been drawn by members of the public, ministers of Government, including the Minister of National Security, Members of Parliament, and reports in the media to the fact that there have been serious disruptions to the services provided by the department to the public by reason of the fact that large sections of staff in the department have been engaging in industrial action,” McLeod said.

He also noted he has personally received complaints from several members of the public about their inability to obtain or renew their passports and the resulting financial, personal and other hardships they faced.

“The situation is exacerbated by the fact that some of these persons have already made travel arrangements for which they have paid and have now found themselves in a position where they are unable to travel because of their inability to obtain a passport. This difficulty is even more serious because this is the school vacation when some parents make arrangements for their children to travel abroad.

I am also aware that the Constitution provides for the freedom of movement as one of its fundamental rights and freedoms. It is in the national interest that the Government should take every step to facilitate the enjoyment of that right by members of the public,” the minister said in his affidavit.

In a separate affidavit to support the injunction application, Acting Chief Immigration Officer Gerry Downes, said Duke visited the department’s offices at 67 Frederick Street on May 14, where he held a meeting with immigration officers and support staff and advised them of limited work hours.Downes said he was told by Duke that staff would work from 7 am to 12 noon, as opposed to the normal work hours of 7 am to 3 pm.

“Mr Duke further informed me that he declared the building a sick building,” Downes said, adding that staff complied with Duke’s instructions.

He said the actions by the staff in compliance with Duke’s instructions impacted heavily on the services the department was able to deliver to the public, including the acceptance of applications for, and delivery of Trinidad and Tobago passports.

He said staff then began merely reporting for work by signing the attendance register and leaving the office, resulting in the office at Frederick Street being unmanned for the rest of the day.

“The result of this was that the operations of that office were crippled,” he added.

According to Downes, this has been reflected in the number of passports the department has been unable to issue to the public.

For the period April 1 to May 13, the Division issued 20,000 passports, however after May 14, on the days when the action was taken, no passports were issued except for a handful only in extreme circumstances. This action continues to date, Downes said. He said on June 25, Duke gave instructions for workers to report for work, merely sign the register, and leave. The action taken by workers at the Immigration Department in Port-of-Spain was also mimicked by workers in San Fernando resulting in the department being shut down in a similar manner.

The PSA president has said there were certain safety issues relating to the office in San Fernando, however, Downes said the electrical integrity of the installation at the building was certified by the Government’s Electrical Inspectorate on June 13, which issued a valid inspection certificate valid until September 28.

Downes also said although Fire Services gave clearance of the department’s building on Henry Street on June 27, after a fire alarm went off, staff refused to occupy the building, resulting in disruptions at that location as well.

Downes said on the same day, a meeting was held at the Parliament Chamber, Tower D, with a number of Government ministers including Housing and Urban Development Minister Roodal Moonilal, who is in charge of the Property Division, with responsibility for all government buildings, including the immigration offices, and National Security Minister Gary Griffith and Duke.

He said the possibility of relocation of the department was raised with Duke, who said before the discussion on the immigration situation could take place he needed the government to settle the negotiations for public servants for the years 2010 to 2013.

Downes admitted that the closure of the department’s offices has “ resulted in great hardship to the public”.

“I am aware that citizens are unable to obtain new or renewed passports and as a consequence those citizens are unable legally to travel out of Trinidad and Tobago. I am also aware that the months of July and August are peak travel periods, especially being so as it is the school vacation,” he added.

“I firmly believe that there is no likelihood of any return to normalcy, and unless the injunction is granted, the public will continue to experience great hardship, and the national interest continues to be put at risk or jeopardised,” the acting Chief Immigration Officer added, saying that the integrity of the country’s passports could be questioned by international agencies.

There are approximately 350 immigration officers in the Immigration Department who are supported by approximately 275 support staff which includes clerical, administrative and IT staff.

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