Building sustainable cities, towns and villages 
November 4, 2018
Mini victories for life
November 4, 2018

Petrotrin and power sharing

Gandalf (left) and Saruman, wizard characters from Lord of the Rings.

By Fr Martin Sirju

The Petrotrin issue has been resting on my mind for a number of weeks. There does not seem to be much sympathy for an alternative solution besides closure and reopening on a smaller scale via private investors.

People seem to think that Petrotrin workers should have seen this coming—the staff disproportionately large, salaries inflated and the company losing billions over the years and hence a millstone round the neck of the national economy. The obvious solution—shut it down. And fast.

Yet, as it is often said, if a solution appears too easy, it probably is. That’s what’s nagging me, someone with no formal training in economics. Surely Petrotrin has gotten this way through the tactics of Petrotrin workers and the OWTU. However, management and political oversight are often left out of the equation. As King Austin sang many years ago: “Who will guard the guards?”

As Petrotrin sank over the years surely many of the guards are to be blamed but what about those who guarded them? They feel the pinch of the turmoil and disorientation far less than those on the lower rungs of the ladder.

Bearing in mind the estimated number of directly and indirectly employed workers affected by the Petrotrin closure, some claiming as high as 10,000, such a displacement causes all sorts of social and psychological problems.

I therefore agree with those who have said that there needed to be a longer transition period between employment and retrenchment, especially since this closure is just on the threshold of Christmas.

Economics was originally under the branch of moral philosophy. It seems to me that to send in a team of technocrats to declare Petrotrin is like a “cancer” reeks of the dispassionate objectivity of much economics that sees the solution in these circumstances purely from the point of view of data on a spreadsheet.

Sunity Maharaj said at a forum—a short video clip of which was sent to me—we are following a model of economic development that just isn’t working for us. When something doesn’t work, close it down; give a severance package; hope for the best; and sell to private investors.

Dr Terrence Farrell in a TED talk in 2014 mentioned, among other things, that we have always been beset by a culture of corruption and one that does not encourage intergenerational thinking. These are serious biblical infractions. The prophets of Israel always thought intergenerationally, where Israel/Judah were heading as kingdoms. Corruption was strenuously condemned and Jesus spent far more energy condemning greed and injustice than he did sexual sins.

In these circumstances religious organisations have always come to the assistance of the hapless victims of the actions of the “unresponsible” (Lloyd Best) but they have not been pro-active, aggressive defenders of these victims against the elite. Neither the IRO. The future urgently requires change.

Maharaj also made another important point. In response to the PM who claimed workers will get a good severance package she said he showed insensitivity to human well-being. People like the idea of a good severance package but they like much more the idea they are useful; they can contribute to society through work; and take part in the dignity of human labour.

In both her comments about a transition plan and the priority of human subjectivity and labour over capital, Maharaj was using—without knowing it I suspect—the language of Catholic social teaching, as if to draw by force the moral component into the picture what was left out by the dispassionate objectivity of the technocrats.

I found this astounding coming not from a Christian ethicist but a social critic. This is why economists and Christian theologians are often not on the same page when it comes to economics. One sees what has been achieved via the liberal capitalist model while the other asks at what cost; and who are the major beneficiaries.

The late Marion O’Callaghan as well as a business consultant friend of mine spoke of the work of the French scholar Thomas Piketty and his influential work Capital in the 21st Century.

Piketty claimed the problem in the world economy is not poverty but the unequal distribution of income. Who controls most of the wealth in the world, in any country, in our country? Who controls most of the capital in Trinidad and Tobago – one per cent, three per cent, five per cent of the population?

From a biblical point of view, monopolies are unethical. The biblical ethos is communion and sharing. We need therefore to ask, when Petrotrin becomes privatised who stands to benefit most locally; whose assets, already large, will become exponentially larger—the consolidation of monopolies? Governments have a moral obligation to its citizens to ensure this does not happen.

When this does not happen what we have is handouts not social justice, economic musical chairs not real structural adjustment.

In Part I of the movie Lord of the Rings Gandalf the Grey says to his fellow wizard Saruman who capitulated to the evil, covetous power of Sauron: “There is only one owner of the ring, and he does not share power!”

The way the Petrotrin affair is evolving, it does not sound like real structural adjustment. It will ultimately redound to the consolidation of power in the hand of a few who most likely recoil at the idea of sharing.