By Joannah Bharose September 27, 2000

A lawyer fights for equal rights

Indians have suffered most
under the hands of the PSC

Dougnath Rajkumar with attorney Anand Ramlogan
A disappointed Dougnath Rajkumar with attorney Anand Ramlogan
as they leave the Court of Appeal which struck down the judgement for
the prison officer's judicial review. Photo: Fulton Wilson

RUMOURS and allegations of favouritism for certain races over others have always plagued the Public Services Commission (PSC), the single largest employer in Trinidad and Tobago. But for the first time the allegations of racism in employment have been tested in court and in the eyes of the public.

Over the last two years the PSC has had to deal with some serious blows to its secretive mode of operation and insulation from legal judgments. Recent cases involving the PSC promotion practices in the Prison, Police and Fire Services have opened the floodgates for cries of racial discrimination from East Indian government employees.

Equal rights lawyer Anand Ramlogan does not hesitate when he says Indians are the ones who seem to have suffered the most at the hands of the PSC. He referred to recent complaints, which have come from men and women in the Police, Prison, Customs and Fire Services.

"I don't know if it is by design or sheer coincidence that the majority of the cases and complaints I'm dealing with are from Indian people." They have all complained that there seems to be a glass ceiling in the public service beyond which they could not rise. The lawyer also used the findings of recent research by the Centre for Ethnic Studies, UWI, to substantiate his claims.

Ramlogan pointed out several of the most offensive practices of the PSC, which give rise to institutionalised racism. He said there are no regulations which permit officers to see their annual staff report, and this is a big problem. "Although the Director of Personnel in 1980 said that staff reports were to be prepared for every employee it said nothing about the officers being able to see what is in their file."

Ramlogan said officers who were not being promoted, never knew why, because the PSC was not obligated to explain any of its actions. A common procedure for the PSC, he said, was to "Interview you without ever letting you know the reasons for turning down your promotion." This is what happened in the landmark case with prison officer Dindial Paltoo, who never saw his staff report and therefore never knew what the problem was, each time he was denied promotion.

Ramlogan said: "You think you are in line to be promoted because you are the next most senior man. But when you come before them for the interview you might suddenly realise you are not on the merit list, which is compiled after the interview. Long serving officers find themselves hundreds of places below junior officers whom they had trained." This is exactly what happened to Dougnath Rajkumar for 32 years in the Prison Service.

Ramlogan added: "Rajkumar found himself perpetually at the bottom of this so-called merit list, which is not shown to anybody. "This list is kept close to the bosom of the prison administration and PSC. You don't know what marks you score in the interviews or what you did wrong." Ramlogan claims he was one of the first persons in this country to see a list, which was eventually published in court in the case of Kemraj Bissessar.

Bissessar was an assistant superintendent who felt he had been unfairly treated for promotion on the grounds of racial discrimination. He was promoted last week to superintendent, less than two weeks away from the court date for his constitutional motion for unfair treatment because of race. Ramlogan said this is the fifth time this has occurred. He believes it is the PSC's intention to frustrate his cases preventing him from advancing to the next stage.

Ramlogan pointed out that the sad situation is that if one wanted to enter the public service they must write the Civil Service exam, but they never know their exact result. "If you fail you cannot know what your mistakes were. You don't have access to your script so you don't know what you did wrong and you can't learn from your mistakes. You either get appointed or not. Such secrecy is fertile ground for discrimination."

After being hired, staff never see their annual report. Ramlogan explained the danger of this practice. "When Bissessar filed his constitutional motion it was only then that he was able to see his staff report." Bissessar never knew the reason why he was not promoted beyond the rank of assistant superintendent. It was only in court that he found out a memo from the Commissioner of Prisons had been put in his file and that was passed to the Promotions and Advisory Board.

The 1980 memo stated that Bissessar was not to be trusted in confidential positions. For the first time in 20 years the prison officer knew that it was this document that blocked his advancement in the service. Ramlogan said that this secrecy guarantees senior officers the privacy and protection to exercise their personal preferences and abuse their power.

He drew reference to sexual harassment cases, which are usually found inside racial discrimination. "Sexual and romantic overtures come wrapped up in racial discrimination. Some complaints that I'm dealing are based on sexual harassment which also show preference for certain types of women based on their ethnic background." He added: "If he is in control of your report, that tick whether it is satisfactory or good determines your career path in the public service."

The PSC openly admitted in an affidavit that staff reports had not been prepared for some prison officers for as much as ten years, as in the case of Rajkumar, Paltoo and Baldeo Rambally." A list of 102 prison officers who had no staff reports for ten years was eventually supplied to Ramlogan during the present case of Rambally. "It is the only instrument to measure your progress and to tell you where you have gone wrong ," said Ramlogan.

Since the onslaught of the legal battles the PSC has unsuccessfully attempted to implement a system to show employees their staff reports. But this policy is being employed in a discriminatory and unfair manner, Ramlogan said. Many officers, he said, are yet to see their staff report. Ramlogan said paper would not change the reality of the culture.

He explained: "PSC regulations only facilitated this culture. For instance you have three people on the Promotions Advisory Board for prison officers. One nominated by the PSC and two by the Commissioner. Theoretically he could nominate two senior officers who he knows and trusts and who are friends. They could all share the same views on some matters of race. That means they have an automatic majority when they decide on a promotion."

Ramlogan admitted he has seen too many cases for it to be sheer coincidence. "I have received over 100 complaints along these lines." According to Ramlogan, support for the few discrimination cases that have made it into the courts has been overwhelming from fellow officers from all races and ranks. "They all have a silent way of supporting each other. But they cannot openly declare their support for fear of victimisation," he said.

He said he recently had a visit from a senior prison officer, who is African, lending his support to the Rajkumar case. "That officer told me he was given instructions by his superior to not get involved in the matter," said Ramlogan.

PSC regulations states that a public servant cannot swear an affidavit in support of a colleague without getting permission from his superior or employer. "In most cases the superior might be on the receiving end of the legal action, so where does that leave the employee? Employees are not allowed to speak to the media either," he said.

He dubbed the procedure an "institutional muzzle." "If they expressed their support publicly they are likely to face internal disciplinary action endangering their own careers."


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