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Raffique Shah


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Jail Chinese contractors for slavery

By Raffique Shah
October 18, 2009

Some five years ago when criminal activities intensified to frightening levels, several people who care about this country suggested to Prime Minister Patrick Manning that he declare a limited state of emergency. I was among those who argued that once the law enforcement agencies were armed with intelligence-identities of the main criminals, overlords of the guns and drugs underworld-Government should move to stem the crime tide by use of emergency powers to arrest the situation, to rescue the country.

I had pointed out, too, that in 1970, during the Black Power uprising, the Eric Williams Government had declared two emergencies. It had detained political activists who had done nothing violent or posed little threat to the stability of the country. Mr Manning’s response was that the declaration of an emergency would “put Trinidad and Tobago in a bad light.” He and several of his key ministers insisted they did not need such powers to deal with the crime spiral. They had a plan. They knew exactly how many gangs there were, their locations and their leaders. The PM himself knew who “Mr Big” was.

Besides, they had contracted, at great expense, world renowned criminologists like Prof Mastrofski to formulate plans for dealing with crime. Five years on, and hundreds of millions of dollars having been expended on all kinds of anti-crime personnel and devices, the only thing we have to show for it is more crime. This country is now the murder capital of the Caribbean, having overtaken Jamaica, Haiti and Guyana, something I never thought I’d live to see. In so far as other dastardly crimes go, we are also in the league of the most lawless countries in the world.

Government has failed miserably to deal with crime. Instead of the country making global news for declaring a state of emergency, we are a regular feature in the international media for heinous crimes like the savaging of two tourists in Tobago. Government’s many crime plans have transformed the once-tranquil sister isle from paradise into hell.

Shaming the country by its failure to deal with crime is worse than declaring an emergency and dealing with the criminals. But Mr Manning does not see it that way. In his warped perspective, better 500 murders a year than one state of emergency.

Then, as if fighting to top the global negative-ratings list, we had the spectacle of Chinese slaves demonstrating on a main highway to highlight the 17th Century conditions under which they live and labour in Vision 2020 Trinidad. For me, the only surprise was that their protest took this long in coming.

I should add that I am not among those who protested the importation of Chinese labour. For decades, Trinidadian employers have exploited Guyanese and eastern Caribbean labour mainly because the work ethic in this country is atrocious. Many among our people, if they had their way, would drink rum all day, all night, and expect to be paid for it. Work, for far too many, is a curse, not an obligation.

So there is nothing wrong importing Chinese or Guyanese or other labourers and craftsmen who are productive, who give us quality work. It is the duty of the authorities, however, to ensure that these people are treated as human beings, not as slaves or animals. In any decent society, the Ministry of Labour would have inspectors who, before recommending the granting of work permits to foreign labour, would ensure that contracts being offered conform to our labour laws. That would mean being paid no lower than the minimum wage-with overtime rates and other basic benefits.

Moreover, there must also be measures in place to approve accommodations and other conditions under which these foreigners are kept. I feel certain that the Cuban healthcare workers who are employed here are paid no less than their Trinidadian counterparts, nor are they housed in hovels. The Cuban government would never countenance that. In the case of the Chinese, Labour Minister Rennie Dumas waited until after the eruption to probe the conditions under which these poor souls slave away to give their families in China better lives.

An issue like this is almost sure to feature in international news much the way it did when “de mark buss” in heaven-in-the-sand Dubai.

There, and in neighbouring Gulf States, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indonesians in the main are herded into similar slave-barracks as they labour in 50-degree (Celsius!) conditions constructing the new “wonder of the world”. When the economic slump hit late last year, the mess also hit the global-news-fan. Many protesting paupers were simply expelled from the Gulf.

But in those countries, feudal sheiks couldn’t give a damn about working conditions or tarred images. In Trinidad and Tobago, if the Government does not care, we citizens do. Even those who oppose the use of Chinese labour are sympathetic to their cause. We are a humane people, most of us anyway. And we take umbrage to government condoning slave-like working conditions.

Here’s the perfect case for immediate reparations for slavery. Either the contractors pay up or give them a taste of Trini-jail. We value our country’s image-even if Mr Manning does not.

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