Trinidad: Life In Point Fortin

Publisher Name: 
Trinidad and Tobago Express

"We are peace-loving people. Look expats drinking beers right there. Liming freely on the streets. You see anybody touching them? Do they look uncomfortable to you? You see them running for cover anywhere?

That was Ernest Thompson talking, a construction worker on Train IV, the only worker who did not mind being identified - the others reluctant to do so for fear of victimisation. Thompson calls himself the leader of the resistance and, at 53, he said this stand was essential so that people throughout the country could be informed about what is happening in Point Fortin.

The strike started on February 11 and work on Train IV has ground to a complete halt. Those on strike said the workforce of over 2,000 has united.

Persons at the strike camp say the strike started because of poor wages, inhumane conditions and very bad industrial relations. Things took a turn for the worse, they said, when they tried to have negotiations with Bechtel and contractor DMC (a Germany-based company).

When we sat Bechtel said to us that DMC was in no position to raise our salaries and so we had no real form of redress. Based on that, all other contracted workers on the site who had similar concerns and complaints decided that enough is enough, Thompson said.

We had the same problems in Trains I, II and III and now Train IV follows suit. This is why workers have decided to straighten out the situation once and for all.

They revealed to the Sunday Express that with the completion of each Train, workers were sent home and found other employment until work on another Train commenced.

Their current wage, they commented, was based on a Memorandum of Understanding with Bechtel. A labourer gets $18 an hour, while a foreman gets $26 and there are variations between that range based on the skills of workers.

But there are discrepancies, they interjected, since there are 22 contractors on site and their wages vary from as low as $15 an hour to $25.

The workers angrily dismissed claims that they were unskilled and therefore their wage demands were unreasonable.

Those rumours that stipulate we the workers are not qualified and skilled are myths. There are those of us who have National Certificates from the technical institutes - John Donaldson, San Fernando - the Vocational Centres, BP Trade Centre, NGC Skills Learning Centre and many others who have their GCE and CXC full certificates. So to assume that we are not qualified and skilled is a very wrong premise on which to be guided, Thompson said.

Workers noted that even Prime Minister Patrick Manning has acknowledged their good work.

Prime Minister Manning, at other post-Cabinet briefings, himself attested that Trinidad is a beacon in terms of commencement of construction to first gas. It only took six years, when in fact other leading producing countries took 12 to 15 years in some cases. Doesn't that tell you about our productivity here? If we don't deserve it I could understand that, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We work and none of us allow each other off the work. It baffles me to hear the remarks some businessmen make, talking about pay based on merit, when we have clearly shown that we are up to the productive task.

Remember, each Train has been ahead of schedule. Each one! Their phrases indicate that we should go to university, when they clearly have no idea about our jobs, never working a day in this industry. They speak about non-skilled and cheap labour but they cannot validate their statements.

Thompson noted that four foremen and 60 workers coming out of Trains I to III were expected to leave this country for five years to construct five tanks in Russia.

They leave next month (April). The contractor that will be taking these men is CBI. Now, you tell me, from a global workforce from which to choose, you choose Trinidadians and telling me we're not productive!

Foremen push the workers to ensure that they are productive and that they adhere to the plan. Because they push so much work, there's also the other side of negligence. There are hazardous chemicals that workers are exposed to. Workers have to walk on 6-inch beams 175 feet to 200 feet in the air in order to make connections with materials to ensure proper construction. There are manlifts which take you up to about 90 feet, after that you are up there on your own to make the difference in height, and these workers are not paid height bonus, nor hazard bonus, but are expected to perform these duties, he said.

There are people who are doing welding and are exposed to various cancer-causing materials. Just recently welders in the tank were vomiting blood, bleeding from their noses and some have not returned since. Anybody cares?

Workers are exposed to toxins, poxy paints. Equal to the men here, there are female re-bar fixers, steel benders, burners, welders and painters, just to mention the jobs the women here do and they started with us from since Train I.

He added: They say we're greedy. No we are not, we are fighting for what is rightly ours. It is our blood, sweat and tears. There are people who've never even come down to Point to see the work we've done, but they cast aspersions based on hearsay. Unfair!

People down here are suffering from throat infections, bronchitis, some who've never had sinuses in their lives all of a sudden afflicted with the thing and so on. There's pollution, a receding coastline and the list can go on and on, the hardships we've had to face as a result of this gas industry.

The workers complain that there is no real hospital facility nearby to deal with an emergency of some magnitude. A visit to the Point Fortin Area Hospital clearly proved the community's lack, especially where medical care was concerned.

The facility, which is over 55 years old, was years ago the Shell Hospital, but is now under the government's control. It is termite-ridden, insect-infested, there are holes in the ceiling, patched work done to the roof and, except for the maternity and emergency wards, has been closed since March 2003. There is one ambulance at the hospital and no Emergency Health Service ambulance in Point Fortin. The walls are dirty and in need of a few coats of paint. The present catchment for the hospital is 70,000.

The nearest burn unit is located at the San Fernando General Hospital and, where burns are concerned, every minute counts. Workers reminded about two men who died due to burns at the plant.

Members of the community said they do not want a big wasteful hospital building, just a facility to suit the needs of the people.

Even if Point Fortin were to get a new hospital and more ambulances, the very ambulances would have to travel roads which alone could add injury to suffering patients.

Very bumpy was the ride to Point Fortin. The roads are in dire need of repair and, according to residents, continued calls for improvement have fallen on deaf ears.

One bewildered female resident asked: What is it that is preventing the government from doing anything for Point Fortin, except taking our money out of here, running with it and investing it just about everywhere else in the country except here? Before there was gas, people fished, did craft, drove their private cars as taxis to make a dollar. We also have born and bred professionals from Point Fortin, some remain, while others have opted out of the town. Now that gas has come, we're still doing the same thing, since most of the workforce comes from outside of Point Fortin. We continue to hustle for the dollar and we have so many skilled and educated people here, bright, constructive people who work real hard.

Poverty is rampant and it is easy for the eyes to capture its burning visibility: Dilapidated houses, children in tattered clothing stand at their doors watching as cars and people pass by.

A community of extremes it is, yet there are those hoping for change, believing that their struggle will be enough to pull them and future generations from the depths of despair. Passionate about this fight, they are determined to not be quelled, until the others take notice and action and remember that, in the midst of garnering wealth, that the poor are humans too.

AMP Section Name:Human Rights