File picture: PSA president Watson Duke, left, OWTU president general Ancel Roget and Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union president Michael Annisette speak after their press conference at the Ministry of Finance, Eric Williams Financial Complex, Port-of-Spain.

The country’s three trade union federations, National Trade Union Centre (NATUC), Joint Trade Union Movement (JTUM) and the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOS (FITUN) have accused Finance Minister Colm Imbert of being irresponsible and trying to deliberately mislead the population by blaming a decision of the industrial court for NP moving from a break-even position to a loss.

The release noted that on January 26, 2021, Imbert told the Parliament that the Industrial Court awarded an increase to workers at National Petroleum in a range of ten to 11 per cent salary increase. As a result of that award by the Industrial Court, National Petroleum is now running at a loss every month in the vicinity of $15 to $20 million.

The statement said Imbert was factually inaccurate about the award of the court as it implies that the court’s decision has resulted in NP running at a loss.

“Which factually not true. The Minister’s words also implies that the court is responsible for the financial state of NP. This is a very irresponsible and deliberately misleading statement. The fact is the Industrial Court never awarded an increase of salary of ten to 11 per cent,” the union said.

The Sunday Guardian had shown that Imbert’s assertion was factually incorrect and the Minister wrong in accusing the court of causing NP’s challenge. Imbert then launched an attack on the Sunday Guardian saying none of the assertions in the newspaper report were accurate.

The Trade Union movement rubbished Imbert’s suggestions.

They said: “The trade unions are of the view that the Sunday Guardian article is correct and that it is the Minister of Finance who is attempting to circumvent the free and fair Collective Bargaining process by stretching the truth and distorting the facts.”

They noted that an NP witness, as stated in the judgment, said that he was comfortable with the award of a single digit increase anywhere from zero to nine per cent.

The OWTU requested an increase of 14 per cent and the court granted an increase of seven per cent with respect to Cost-of-Living Allowance (COLA).

“We first wish to remind the Minister of Finance that consolidation of COLA is in fact a negotiable item and it was NP that approached the union to consolidate three expired periods,” the statement said.

The unions added that it was the company that froze the payment of COLA in 2011 in violation of the existing collective agreement by refusing to adjust the COLA paid depending on the changes of the Retail Price Index.

On December 4, 2019, the Industrial Court ordered the company to resume payment of COLA in keeping with the negotiated provisions of Article 11 of the registered Collective Agreement.

The case was adjourned to December 17, 2019 at 1 pm.

However, before the hearing at the court on December 17, NP and the union met and settled the matter and agreed to the payment of the retroactive COLA owed to workers effective 2011.

As a result, parties filed a Terms of Settlement which superseded the court order of December 4, and which made that order redundant and of no effect.

The unions said the Minister ought to know that the final decision on the issue of COLA was made by the parties in collective bargaining and not by the court.

“He ought to know that it was not an order of the court which made COLA retroactive but a negotiated settlement between the parties, which the parties signed and registered at the court.

“We wish to remind the Minister that it was a decision by NP’s management and/or board to illegally stop the payment of COLA to workers since 2011 which placed NP in the position of having to pay retroactive COLA and not because of the court,” the unions said.

They added that Imbert needs to hold to account whoever at NP’s management and/or board level that took the illegal decision to simply stop the payment of COLA, since 2011 and stop blaming the court and continuing to mislead the public.

The loss at NP has nothing to do with the court’s decisions, the statement said, adding that such “an attack” by the executive arm of the state on a court of higher record can undermine the judicial system and the entire industrial relations architecture, which has kept industrial peace and stability for the last 50 years.

The Industrial Court must be allowed to maintain its objectivity and independence, which independence must be protected in its determination of fair matters and not attacked by the State, the unions said.

In addition, they added that the fact that NP and other State enterprises and the public sector on a whole have outstanding negotiations going as far back as 2012 is no fault of the court or the unions.

The responsibility falls squarely on the State which has refused to keep collective agreements current, which would allow the government to avoid the gross injustice of people living on 2012/2013 salaries in 2021, the statement added.

It said the cost of living continues to spiral upwards creating real and vexing increase in the gap between salaries and rising cost of living.

“The Minister is again attempting to usurp the collective bargaining process.

“Collective bargaining is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy. Its importance is such that it is protected by international law as enshrined in the ILO Convention C154 – Collective Bargaining Convention, 1981 (No. 154),” the unions said.

They added that collective bargaining does not include a Minister of Finance discussing terms of employment in the Senate.

“That information should rightly be presented to the recognised majority union. It is highly irregular and worrisome for the Minister of Finance to usurp the role of the Chief Personnel Officer and attempt to impose a unilateral position in the public domain.

They added that this does not give the Minister the right to violate the Industrial Relations Act and the international labour standards and conventions that have been ratified by this country.