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CONTEMPT

By Jada Loutoo Friday, July 11 2014

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ONE DAY after urging immigration workers to return to the job, acting Prime Minister Errol McLeod yesterday filed contempt of court proceedings against president of the Public Services Association (PSA) Watson Duke and immigration officer Purdy Babwah.

Hearing of the application, which calls on the court to commit Duke and Babwah to prison for contempt for aiding and abetting the breach of the injunction which the Industrial Court had granted last Thursday, takes place today at the Industrial Court, Port-of-Spain.

Duke is accused of calling out and instructing staff of the Immigration Division, at both Port-of-Spain and San Fernando, to sign in and leave their jobs without working by telling them that the office was shut down until whenever.

Some 49 names — comprising of both immigration officers and other workers — were named in the application as those who followed Duke’s instructions and refused to work, engaging in industrial action on July 7 and July 8.

Babwah was also accused of refusing to work on those two days, engaging in industrial action.

The application filed by McLeod, the Labour Minister, also asks that the PSA be found guilty of contempt.

This latest legal action was filed based on the advice of Attorney General Anand Ramlogan who at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting advised that the action be taken and permission was given to McLeod to pursue the contempt proceedings against Duke.

In support of the application for contempt, acting Chief Immigration Officer Gerry Downes indicated that one day following the granting of the injunction, work at the Immigration Division’s offices resumed to normal with a “full day’s work” being done.

He said on the same day work resumed, an inspection of the premises at Port-of-Spain was conducted by the Occupational Safety and Health Authority (OSHA).

Downes said the owners of the building where the Immigration Division is located in the capital city have been undertaking refurbishment work to the air-conditioning system, the sprinkler system, changing of ceiling tiles, updating fire extinguishers, installation of exit signs, emergency lighting and smoke detectors and air quality testing for the past month.

He also said a meeting was held with the owners of the building and the department on Monday last and work continued to be carried out by the owners.

Government, he said, called in the Housing Development Corporation to take immediate steps to deal with any complaints raised and had already started works to rectify some of the problems identified.

Downes said last weekend, although the offices at Port-of-Spain were closed to the public, members of the passport section of the sub-offices in Sangre Grande, Point Fortin and Chaguanas came out to work to treat with the backlog of passports not produced for the seven weeks in which workers were engaged in industrial action.

Downes said although workers at the division’s offices at Henry Street, Port-of-Spain all resumed work at the beginning of this week, 26 immigration officers in the passport section and 41 business operations assistants embarked on the same action of merely signing the register and leaving the office by 8 am.

This, he said, has effectively crippled the passport section.

At the San Fernando office, 16 immigration officers and eight business operations assistants did the same, resulting in the same problem of crippling the passport section. Only a handful of persons have been able to receive their new passports at either office, since Monday.

A defiant Duke, also on Monday, addressed the public waiting in line in attempts to collect their new passports, telling them that the office was shut down.

On Wednesday, at a media conference he called on McLeod to remove the injunction, saying it was unjust.

He has been meeting with members of the Government, including National Security Minister Gary Griffith and Housing Minister Roodal Moonilal with a view to resolving the litany of woes at the offices, including no fire escape, toilets that don’t cater for obese people and hanging electrical wires.

“The workers will not be made to surrender their rights. It is a human rights issue. The employees are being compelled to work in an unsafe building by employer in contravention of Section 15 of the OSH Act,” he said.

But according to chief inspector at the OSHA, Gaekwad Ramoutar, who also went on affidavit in support of the contempt application, he was of the opinion that the building which houses the Immigration Division at 67 Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain, poses no serious and imminent danger to persons who occupy or use the building nor does there exist any unusual circumstance that is hazardous or injurious to anyone.

“The physical condition of the workplace is not likely to endanger persons who may occupy or use the building,” he said.

The injunction granted last week by Industrial Court president Deborah Thomas-Felix, and judges Lawrence Achong, Albert Aberdeen, Kyril Jack and Kathleen George-Marcell, ordered immigration workers back on the job and restrained them 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 the control of the division.

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

McLeod, in support of the injunction, had said he was of the considered opinion that the national interest of Trinidad and Tobago was threatened and affected by the action taken.

“It is clear to me that the Public Services Association, its officers, servants and or agents and/or its members and/or Immigration Department (Division) 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 and continues to maintain.

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

Downes had expressed concern that if there was no likelihood of any return to normalcy at the department, the public would continue to experience great hardship, and the national interest would be put at risk or jeopardised.

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

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