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McLeod, Duke in stand-off over immigration

By SEAN DOUGLAS Friday, July 11 2014

Government will ask the Industrial Court to enforce its injunction against any industrial action by the Public Services Association (PSA) at the Immigration Division, vowed Labour Minister Errol McLeod, at yesterday’s post-Cabinet news briefing at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s. He said the PSA itself is able to approach the Industrial Court to argue its case. Currently immigration staff are merely distributing passports and forms but not doing interviews, as the PSA seeks to sidestep the injunction by saying it does not ban a walkout from an unsafe building under the provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act.

At a news briefing later, PSA president Watson Duke, stood his ground, launching a personal attack on McLeod whom he accused of “pouring gasoline” to inflame matters.

McLeod, the acting Prime Minister, told reporters that a July 3 meeting between the PSA and Government had agreed that immigration staff would return to work, but he alleged the PSA has not honoured that accord. McLeod said Government is keeping all its options open, and is willing to talk to the PSA even as he said Government will approach the Industrial Court for enforcement.

Refuting the PSA’s claim of OSH violations, he said the neglect at the immigration offices did not happen overnight, and he questioned whether it poses any imminent hazard to staff.

On three grounds, McLeod queried the PSA’s claim of unsafe working conditions at the offices in Port-of-Spain. He said an Occupational Safety and Health Authority (OSHA) letter to the PSA had said there are no grounds to issue a prohibition notice, that is an order to shut the building on OSH grounds. Secondly, McLeod said not one immigration employee has filed any complaint of a threat to health or safety posed by the building. Thirdly he held up a document that he said was a fire report OK’ing the building, which later on Udecott managing director Jerlean John said was a preliminary approval by the Chief Fire Officer, with a final approval expected in the near future.

Asked if the Industrial Court could combine the injunction and OSH matters into a single umbrella matter to be ruled upon, McLeod simply said the court must look at all matters coming before it.

He listed all the woes of the travelling public caused by the partial shutdown, such as TT nationals being trapped abroad and foreigners in TT not being able to get their approvals to be here. McLeod said he would not be distracted by Duke’s description of the Government as “terrorists”, and added that certain persons must be treated with the contempt they deserve.

Duke in turn said his union has no need to go to the Industrial Court to make its case, and if Government files contempt of court proceedings then the union would respond in the way it sees best.He alleged McLeod was the worst Labour Minister ever, and urged him to calm down and go and enjoy his pension, calling for Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to return to TT to save it from officials playing dolly-house with labour.

Duke mulled the idea of leading a march against McLeod, whom he accused of doing nothing for workers. He urged Government to allow Minister of National Security Gary Griffith a free hand to settle the dispute.

Duke said it is time to get down to business and to move on, and added, “But if he (Mc Leod) seeks to enforce the injunction, we will not obey it and he’ll get himself a real war.”

Duke called for an oversight committee of five members each of the PSA and the Government to monitor the remediation of conditions at the immigration office and any later relocation to Campus Plaza located on Richmond Street. He insisted the Frederick Street building violates several OSH conditions, such as poor air quality, poor access, overcrowding and had no approval from Town and Country Planning nor the Fire Department, as recently detailed in an OSHA report.

Duke was angry that McLeod had alleged that the PSA was “crying wolf” over OSH conditions, and that McLeod has seemed dismissive of the OSHA report. “It is a damning and blasphemous statement against a technical person giving an unbiased report,” he railed against Mc Leod.

Refuting McLeod, Duke insisted several workers had indeed filed complaints of illness allegedly due to conditions in the building.

“An immigration officer IV today complained of having to seek specialist treatment,” he said. Others suffered woes to their respiratory, immune, cutaneous and even reproductive systems, he alleged. He said at one office a glass pane had nearly fallen on an employee in his car, and a TTEC foreman had caught fire with no functional extinguisher at hand.

Duke lamented as “a travesty” the fact that key players in the dispute — the OSHA inspectors and the judges in the Industrial Court — are in contract positions and as such are allegedly vulnerable to pressure from the Labour Minister.

When pressed on this he said he knows the personalities currently in these posts to be scrupulous persons.

Duke was angry at the OSHA Chief Inspector for refusing to issue a Prohibition Notice (to order the Government to vacate the Port-of-Spain office on OSH grounds), despite the report of other OSH inspectors citing woes such as an air-stench, water-seepage and 30 workers sharing a unisex toilet.

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