As the spokesperson for the retrenched lecturers of UTT, I stand in solidarity with the displaced workers of Petrotrin.
On May 11, 2018, about 60 lecturers were wrongfully dismissed by the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT). On October 1, about 2,600 permanent workers would be innocently sent home by the oil company.
Both the UTT and Petrotrin are national entities. The UTT is a Government-funded, non-profit educational institution and Petrotrin is a commercial State oil company.
The workers in both enterprises are casualties of a “restructuring exercise” designed to cut financial losses by retrenching workers. Our UTT dismissal letters stated that we were “surplus” lecturers who became “redundant” in the university’s “restructuring exercise.”
Victims of mismanagementandmalfeasance
The workers in the UTT and Petrotrin are victims of mismanagement by successive PNM and PP-appointed Boards of Governors. The Petrotrin worker’s union, OWTU, had always expressed its concern about mismanagement, malfeasance and graft. The trade union had also warned about cost overruns on megaprojects like the now infamous WGTL, USLD and GOP. No Petrotrin worker can be blamed for misappropriating TT$3 billion on the failed GTL plant.
Is the UTT managing taxpayers’ money wisely? Why does it continue to pay its Iraq-born president, Sarim Al-Zubaidy, a reported $240,000 a month? And now Al-Zubaidy’s long-time research partner, Wasi Z. Khan, another foreigner, is reportedly also being paid in foreign currency.
Speaking at a press conference on May 18, 2018 at NAPA, Vice Chairman of the Board Clement Imbert said, “UTT’s new structure will see a reduction in top management from seven Vice Presidents to three, 56 managers to about 33-36.” To date, there has been no announcement that this reduction has been done.
Does the UTT have money to continue to pay the 287 non-teaching workers who have to be retrenched, as Imbert and Education Minister, Anthony Garcia, told the media eight months ago?
Or is Imbert really afraid to fire these workers because of the inevitable backlash of protests from the militant OWTU which also represents the 287 workers?
Why does the UTT continue to pay for expensive full-page, full-colour advertisements in the print media with the pathetic tagline: “UTT IS HERE TO STAY”? Why did the UTT transfer approximately $323 million from its operating funds to continue the construction of its signature campus complex in the jungle in Tamana?
No consultation with UTT lecturers before dismissal
Unlike Petrotrin workers, we were never shown (the need for) a restructuring plan for the university or a statement of accounts indicating a financial loss. What was worse, the Board of the UTT never held any meeting or discussion with us. Had consultations been offered to us, we would have suggested ways in which jobs could have been saved without the university collapsing.
One of the due process steps followed in industrial relations – before formal notice of dismissal is given to affected employees – is consultation. The UTT failed to consult with us before the premature termination of our 3-year contracts.
The Retrenchment and Severance Benefits Act No. 32 of 1985 of T&T stipulates that “prior to the giving of formal notice in writing of retrenchment,” [the employer] is expected “to enter into consultation” with the affected employees or their representative union “with a view to exploring the possibility of averting, reducing or mitigating the effects of the proposed retrenchment.”
Lies told to UTT and Petrotrin employees
On January 15, 2018, Energy Minister Franklin Khan categorically dismissed a social media report which alleged that 2,000 workers would be retrenched from Petrotrin. He said, “It is mischief to say the least.” As the line Minister, either Khan did not know at the time or was telling a lie.
Speaking on Radio I95.5 on August 27, OWTU’s education and research officer, Ozzi Warwick, accused the government of perpetrating lies and withholding certain facts about Petrotrin. He said: “The country deserves to hear the whole Petrotrin story …. The lies must stop.” Warwick reiterated calls for a public inquiry.
On May 28, Minister Garcia told the media that UTT lecturers had to be “trimmed so that an equal distribution of the cumulative workload could be attained and maintained.” That is a lie propagated by Garcia. No such audit was done, at least in the Education Programme where I taught. To prove that he is not lying, I hereby publicly challenge Garcia to make public his lecturer-student ratio audit for the dismissed lecturers.
At our dismissal meeting, the Head of the Education Programme at UTT, Dr Judy Rocke, gave the reason for her termination of our contracts. She told the assembled lecturers that all Secondary School Specialisation courses were being phased out, resulting in us being “redundant” in the university’s “restructuring exercise.”
Now we know that she was lying. These courses are timetabled and are still being taught to new students during the new semester which began on September 3, 2018.
Dr. Mahabir taught several courses at UTT including Research Methods.
Due process was not followed by the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) in dismissing about 70 lecturers on May 11, 2018. On that day, I was one of eleven who were wrongly and arbitrarily fired from the Centre for Education Programmes (CEP) as part of the University’s stated “restructuring exercise.”
Due process is a fundamental principle of fairness which should be followed before dismissing workers, including instructors, teachers, lecturers and professors. It is a universal procedure which must be afforded to each individual – in an orderly sequence of steps – to avoid prejudicial or unequal treatment culminating in court action against a company, organisation or institution.
The steps of this process include the following: (i) consultation with the affected employee, (ii) prior notice of dismissal, (iii) presentation of evidence by the employer, (iv) opportunity for the employee to respond, (v) representation of the employee by an attorney, (vi) notice of dismissal, (vii) the right to appeal, and (viii) the right to judicial review.
The dismissal was too abrupt. Done without consultation, and any prior oral or written notice, my attorney, Roshni Balkaran, described this sudden dismissal as “an ambush.” This was summary dismissal i.e. termination of employment without any prior notice or hearing. Labour and employment regulations stipulate that notice must be given at least 30 days before the effective date of termination. There was no notice to apprise us of the grounds or reasons for which our dismissals were being inflicted.
No opportunity to be heard before dismissal
The UTT unleashed plain dismissal at the same moment of notification. No prior notice of dismissal was afforded to us as well as no opportunity to be heard before a duly constituted Faculty Committee or Faculty Senate. This misstep by the UTT was a breach of statutory and constitutional due process. Usually, workers identified to be dismissed are given 10 or 15 days for a fair and meaningful hearing.
The Legal Services Department of the National Education Association in Missouri in the USA explains the due process of a hearing by a teacher who has been given notice of dismissal:
“At a termination hearing, the teacher may be represented by legal counsel and may cross-examine witnesses called by the board against the teacher.”
No hearing from UTT President and Minister of Education
We were never given an opportunity by the UTT administration to be heard or to appeal our dismissal. On May 14th 2018 about 2.00 p.m, we went to UTT’s Head Office in O’Meara to meet President Sarim Al-Zubaidy. We were accompanied by Mr. Devant Maharaj, the President of Sanctuary Workers’ Trade Union, who has been representing us.
We informed Al-Zubaidy’s Secretary that we had been summarily dismissed and wanted to seek an urgent meeting with him for an identification and explanation of what criterion was used to terminate our employment. She said he was not in the building. We told her that we would nevertheless camp outside his office until he came.
Four UTT security guards surrounded us. It was reported by one UTT staff that the TTPS Police were called to beef up security. The TTPS Police were parked outside the main entrance waiting. We stood our ground peacefully outside Al-Zubaidy’s office door for more than an hour. Then President Al-Zubaidy mysteriously emerged from his office under heavy security. He refused to talk to each one of us individually. We were armed with our individual teaching timetable to show him that we were not “surplus” lecturers teaching two and three students in two and three classes as the Minister of Education was broadcasting to the media.
Dr Judy Rocke
President Al-Zubaidy agreed to meet only one female lecturer in his private office. She outlined her case and he basically told her that he could do nothing to reverse her dismissal. Al-Zubaidy said that he assumed that our immediate supervisor, Dr Judy Rocke, had used “the Staff Loading Model” (SLM) criteria to dismiss eleven of us from a staff of about 100 lecturers. That was not the case as we will prove in court. We had never heard of SLM.
On May 16th 2018, we sought a higher authority in the Minister of Education to get a hearing of our wrongful dismissal. We staged a peaceful, sit-down, hunger protest with a placard from 6.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. on the street pavement in front of the Ministry of Education in St. Vincent Street in Port of Spain. Minister Anthony Garcia never responded to our request to meet us in his office.
On May 17th 2018, we staged another protest at the Prime Minister’s Office in St Clair and the Prime Minister’s Residence and Diplomatic Centre at La Fantasie Road in St Ann’s. Our union representative, Devant Maharaj, also sent a written request to Al-Zubaidy for a hearing and an appeal.
Dr. Mahabir taught several courses at UTT including Written Communication.
About 40 lecturers from the Centre for Education Programmes at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) have been marked to be dismissed.
Eleven of them from the Corinth and Valsayn Campuses have already received their dismissal letter on Friday11th May 2018.
This dismissal came in the wake of Finance Minister Colm Imbert’s boast that the economy is turning around. In his mid-term budget review in Parliament on Thursday, Imbert sang the words of Johnny Nash, “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.” What is actually gone is the dismissal of lectures at UTT.
Minister Imbert boasted in the mid-term budget review that the economy is turning around, revenue collection is up, the energy sector is booming and the non-oil sector is also growing. Most of the population however have not seen any tangible evidence of that turn around.
Those UTT lecturers whose services have been terminated in the first wave of firings so far are Rudrunath Singh, Omar Maraj, Aarti Persad, Balmatee Sukha, Kumar Mahabir, Solomon Ragnathsingh, Amanda Rambaran-Sookraj, Rhonda Dookwah, Carol La Chapelle, Joseph Sanchez and Patricia Bascombe-Fletcher.
The Head of the Centre, Dr Judy Rocke, distributed the termination letters at the Valsayn Campus at 2:30 p.m. She disclosed that the decision was taken as part of a restructuring exercise and that the dismissed lecturers were sent home because of “redundancy.” Interestingly the termination letters were delivered almost in the middle of the semester when there are four (4) more teaching weeks. UTT has given the dismissed lecturers one week to vacate the premises
At the meeting, Rocke revealed that the first round of dismissals was based on lecturers who taught students who were graduating to teach at secondary schools. However, the lecturers believed that this criteria was contradictory and arbitrary because some of the secondary school specialisation lecturers were not dismissed. Moreover, some lecturers who do not teach that specialisation were sent home yesterday. Rocke also disclosed that she kept some of these specialisation lecturers because they were close to the retirement age of 70.
As a means of cutting cost, it was suggested that UTT should dissolve some of its programmes such as Carnival Studies, Criminology and Marine Sciences which are already being offered by UWI. Moreover, the appointment of the president, Professor Sarim N. Al-Zubaidy, should be revoked. He is a foreigner from the Middle East who is reported to be paid TT$240,000 per month in US currency.
The sacked lecturers intend to meet with attorney Anand Ramlogan soon to take this matter to court. They want clarification on two issues: (1) what criteria was used for dismissal, and (2) was this criteria used across the board.