SWWTU president Michael Annisette.

The decision by Angostura to withhold workers’ interim incentives even after they had met their quota and failure to consult with the union before doing so, triggered them to down tools and shut down operations on Wednesday. So said Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union President Michael Annisette, who insited that the workers protested for “incentives and not bonuses.”

The workers have since returned to work. A release from the company on Thursday said an agreement was reached between Angostura and the union on Wednesday evening.

The union head answered several questions by the Sunday Guardian concerning the workers’ situation.

Q: Do you as union leader believe the move by close to 300 of Angostura workers to down tools in reaction to the company’s decision not to pay bonuses this year is fair, especially in the face of economic challenges brought on by COVID-19?

A: Annisette: The issue of economic challenges is a holistic question, we saw that several companies have been made to be hamstrung by what is happening globally. But we’re also aware that several other companies would have been making money within the global pandemic period, therefore we have to make a distinction in the context of which box Angostura falls in. The reality at Angostura is the Angostura financials for 2020 in the COVID-19 period is better than Angostura’s financials in 2019 and they paid workers their interim incentives in 2019.

What is your view on the fact that thousands of workers have been retrenched in this country and are now on the breadline with thousands of others who were already unemployed?

Some were used. The ILO (International Labour Organization) would have analysed that COVID-19 was used by some employers to implement measures of temporary layoffs and sending workers home. Some layoffs were justifiable because there was a closedown of the economy and there was an inability by the companies to make profits. The statement by the ILO and Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley that you have to balance lives with livelihoods…one has to understand that at one time there was a total shutdown and only essential industries were allowed to operate. In those circumstances, you would have layoffs and companies sending workers home. Angostura again was not one of those companies; it was deemed essential and continued to operate during COVID-19.

Large companies across the world have been forced to lay off workers due to the pandemic, do you believe that Angostura workers are insulated from this global trend?

You cannot mix guavas with apples, you have to look and conceptualise the issue. The fact is Angostura would have prospered during the pandemic period. Angostura employed more people, brought in more managers, had more products which they exported all over the world. There was an increase in Angostura’s products, therefore the question of insulation does not arise in those circumstances. Just like tech companies, digital companies who made tons of money during COVID-19, Angostura was one of those companies flourishing.

Your organisation, the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union, was reported as saying that the workers felt ‘hurt’ by the decision not to pay bonuses and that there had been no indication that Angostura would break what it called a ‘tradition’. Hasn’t the union and its workers noticed the shutdown for months of key market, the hospitality industry, both in T&T and where its products are sold in the region and beyond?

The workers didn’t feel hurt, they felt betrayed because a decision was made on the legitimate expectation on something that had been part of Angostura for over 30 years. This was not something that happened overnight or yesterday, it is ingrained in Angostura’s DNA in terms of the ending of the year that they take these incentives, it’s not a bonus. The press has been making this misrepresentation that workers are fighting for a bonus; it was an incentive which can only be paid when you meet certain benchmarks and it was achieved. There was a legal obligation to pay and you cannot use COVID-19 as an excuse or disguise to not make the legitimate payment due. The decision was taken without the involvement or discussions with the union, in the period when Angostura and the union were working during the pandemic to put measures in place to ensure Angostura met the demands outside of the local and regional markets with their new products. The union sat down and agreed to put an additional shift to meet demands and also to implement operational changes for COVID-19.

Was Angostura still producing at full capacity when the hospitality industry was shut down for months?

There were new brands, sorrel, cocoa bitters and new products and investment in money and equipment.

If there was no market or demand for these products, why would Angostura increase the level and time that workers were required to come to work? Angostura was operating 24/7 basically in a pandemic period.

CEOs and athletes have taken pay cuts to help their respective companies and clubs survive during COVID-19. Have any Angostura workers been asked to take a pay cut, reduce their working hours or rotate their working days?

Footballers took a pay cut because there was no football, it had just restarted. Not all CEOs would have taken pay cuts, did the CEO of Angostura and West India Tobacco take pay cuts? Production was there and they made money. There were certain products that were in high demand that Angostura could not produce enough of like puncheon.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, were the Angostura employees working regular working hours or additional hours to manufacture hand sanitizers for the pandemic effort?

Angostura started to work at 50 per cent in the first instance, they met with the union, we sat, collaborated and came up with a process and mechanism, people were allowed to work from home. Angostura was taken off the list and deemed essential and records and sales will show even in Angostura’s papers their success stories during the pandemic and ongoing. The workers played an essential part in this and gave their all and best to ensure that products reached markets.

What were the workers doing during this time?

A decision that was taken without the engagement with the union affected the workforce who would have produced, worked extra hours, over time, give their blood and sweat to ensure Angostura would produce.

There have been claims that unions have become a law unto themselves and have been frequently engaging in illegal work stoppages and have faced little or no consequences for breaking our labour laws, what are your views on this?

That’s just verbal diatribe, where is the evidence to support this allegation? Name five illegal stoppages for the year that workers would have taken that didn’t have any consequences and I will respond.

Angostura has been in existence for a long time, people forget when the company was going under, the PNM bailed out Angostura. When it was going through a crisis, the very same union and workers would have given up certain benefits to ensure that the company survived. During the pandemic, workers gave up some of their vacation leave and pooled the money that would have realised over $1 million to feed people in depressed areas.