A police officer checks for names on a list at the Southern Academy for the Performing Arts, San Fernando, yesterday during the vaccination drive for construction workers.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has condemned business owners who are using the current restrictions and downturn in the economy to unfairly raise cement prices.

Rowley was speaking on Saturday during a COVID-19 news conference at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s.

“It is not right and simply taking advantage of a bad situation,” the PM said.

Meanwhile, the president of the Contractors’ Association of T&T Glenn Mahabirsingh said he was supporting the PM’s stance.

“We support the Prime Minister’s condemnation of price gouging. That cement would have been in inventory prior to the cement manufacturer closing. Those traders should not take advantage of the situation. The Prime Minister said that the cement manufacturing company would get an exemption to restart in terms of exports and other commitments. So hopefully price gouging would be a thing of the past,” Mahabirsingh told the Sunday Guardian by phone.

A bag of cement which was being sold for $45 to $50 before the lockdown, has now risen to $150 at some hardware stores.

On May 8, Trinidad Cement Ltd (TCL) immediately ceased operation and has not been facilitating sales or local commercial activity. The country’s second cement supplier Hard Rock Cement also temporarily stopped all sale and distribution.

In May, Trade Minister, Paula Gopee-Scoon called on retail hardware owners not to take advantage of the public.

Cement importer Rock Hard Cement this week signalled that it intends to increase the price of the commodity on the local market from July 1, 2021 “due to rising prices worldwide along with the volatility of shipping during the second half of the year.”

The Prime Minister, who said the construction sector will most likely remain closed for another two weeks, indicated that the Government would consider assisting construction workers. Mahabirsingh said his association had reached out to the Government to consider salary relief grants for construction workers.

“We welcome this initiative and we wait to hear what are the details of the salary relief grant so that construction industry workers can access it.

“The construction sector is safety driven and we understand the extent of the pandemic as lives are very important. So we seek the guidance from the Ministry of Health in terms of when they would assess that when the industry could re-open.”

Although he said he wanted to wait until the vaccination drive was over before he could give numbers, Mahabirsingh said he was happy with what he saw so far in terms of the number of employees in the industry who showed up to be vaccinated. The construction industry’s two-day vaccination drive ends on Sunday.

The co-ordinator of the Confederation of Regional Business Chambers, Jai Leladharsingh also supports the Prime Minister’s criticisms of business owners who are raising cement prices without justification.

“There is a difference between a profiteer and someone setting up a business to genuinely make a living and to serve the community. These hardware stores selling cement at more than $150 a bag are being very unethical. In an existential circumstance where people are facing a pandemic that could take your life, this is the time to work to help others not to profit. I agree with the Prime Minister.”

Managing Director of T and Z Marketing Ltd and a former director of the Chaguanas Business Chamber, Trevor Joseph said that the Prime Minister should not paint all business people with the same brush.

Joseph has been involved in the construction sector for the past 35 years.

He admitted that there are unscrupulous business people who may be raising the price of cement but said not all are like that.

“There are honest and dishonest people but you cannot blanket an entire industry when a few people are doing dishonest things.”

He also said that the Government should treat business people with respect.

“It is important that the Government set the rules of engagement which is social distancing and unmasking. We, business people, are the lifeblood of the economy, not the politicians. We must be treated with respect.”