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Raffique Shah


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Why not the OWTU?

By Raffique Shah
Oct 02, 2019

The outrage that erupted when Government announced its decision to name the Oilfields Workers Trade Union's company, Patriotic Energies and Technologies Ltd, as the preferred bidder for the oil refinery at Pointe-a-Pierre (Guaracara Refining Co), you'd swear all Cabinet ministers and the OWTU's president Ancel Roget and his entire executive are guilty of high treason, and deserve to be hauled into Woodford Square and shot to death with goat-pills.

My understanding is that the two parties have yet to meet and discuss the terms of agreement (or disagreement), although some broad outlines have been revealed by Finance Minister Colm Imbert. He said, inter alia, that of the three bidders who were recommended to Cabinet by an independent committee, only Patriotic, which is offering US $700 million for the refinery, was prepared to pay an undisclosed sum up front.

If I have a problem with the process thus far, it is to ask the Minister why he declined the "down payment", and proposes instead to offer Patriotic a three-year moratorium on all payments, to be followed by a ten-year repayment period? If I were in his seat, I'd demand US $70 million up front, because, as late Tunapuna businessman Max Senhouse used to say, "We needs de money!"

But returning to the expressions of outrage over the choice of Patriotic/OWTU over an initial 77 corporations expressing interest in the refinery (according to Imbert, late last year), from the Chamber of Commerce to politicians obscure and high-profiled, commentators of every hue and persuasion, economists, energy experts and sundry malcontents, they screamed, almost in unison: why the OWTU?

In other words, trade unions have no right to engage in business, and least of all in an enterprise as huge as that oil refinery.

Mark you, not one of the critics entered the bidding process in their own right as entrepreneurs or professionals or on behalf of venture capitalists. It's a crying shame that in a country as industrialised as Trinidad and Tobago, not one of our conglomerates entered the fray. The self-promoting dissenters could not put together venture capital to show that they could shake a leg, far less walk the talk.

It is at a time like this that I think of that much-maligned corporate adventurer, Lawrence Duprey. He may have had more than a few tricks up his sleeve, but he was a daring investor.

Look, I agree with the chorus of calls for transparency in any-and-everything to do with the assets of what was Petrotrin, be it the refinery, the oil wells or its vast landholdings. But sitting and griping over lost oil or stolen petro-dollars or the TT $15 billion debt incurred through a combination of political interference, gross mismanagement, poor work ethic or naked looting of the one-time oil giant will get us nowhere.

We have to reopen that refinery, put our money (for those who have it) or our experienced hands, our expertise, where our mouths are. After waging a bitter war with the Rowley government over its decision to shut down Petrotrin in 2018, the OWTU has clearly decided to be part of the reincarnation process rather than the graveside service.

The critics ask what the hell does the union, which comprises largely ex-oil workers, know about running the refinery? I ask them: who the hell ran the refinery before its closure? Not the said workers, their supervisors, the technicians, the managers?

So they made many mistakes, or simply took it for granted that the petro-goose would forever lay golden eggs. Well, they learned the hard way it could not. Now they are seizing an opportunity to redeem themselves and restore self-confidence as one of the oldest oil-producing nations in the world.

We should encourage, not castigate them.

Hell, who runs the however many petrochemical plants on the Point Lisas Industrial Estate? Nationals of this country, almost to a man—and woman. In contrast with relatively new technology at these plants, the refinery, even with upgraded components, is hardly a challenge for our technocrats and skilled labourers.

Of course the Cabinet's decision was likely influenced by the politics of the day-and maybe next year's general election. Making peace with the OWTU could restore the PNM's standing in what can be described as the oil-belt constituencies in South and South-West Trinidad. Such politicking is not alien to our culture. Any party in power, given similar circumstances, would have acted likewise unless it harboured a pathological hatred for trade unions, or more specifically the OWTU and its leader, Roget.

The Keith Rowley Government, having shut down the State-owned oil company late last year, did indicate that it would seek to resuscitate its three subsidiaries, namely exploration and production (Heritage Petroleum), refining (Guaracara), and trading in fuels (Paria). Heritage continued operations almost without pause, Paria kicked off smoothly, with no disruptions in the supply of any fuel, and the new parent company, Trinidad Petroleum Holding, almost immediately invited expressions of interest in the refinery.

From early o'clock, having lost the battle to prevent the closure of Petrotrin, the OWTU signalled its intention to seek to acquire and operate the refinery. Its proposal will have been in the hands of the holding company before any other. There is no guarantee that they will make the refinery a profitable enterprise for all stakeholders.

So what if they fail? The international oil majors have failed in certain projects, as have governments. It's a risk they and their partners, who should be thoroughly scrutinised by the Financial Intelligence Unit, are eager to take.

The nation should support the union's Patriotic bid, not sabotage it as so many seem to be doing.

Shame on them.

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