Letter to Retrenched Petrotrin Workers

Letter to Retrenched Petrotrin Workers

Dear Former Workers of Petrotrin,

The gas flares have gone dark. Those work-worn safety boots have been slipped off aching feet for the last time. A house and home, a wife, a husband and children with their ambitions: an entire life built by sweat, risk and dedication is all thrown into question with one final cheque and a shove out the door.

You don’t know who we are, but we lived an experience eerily similar to yours. We too were retrenched when Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) was shut down in 2005. It’s ironic that in the years preceding TTT’s closure, we covered the closure of Caroni 1975 Limited and BWIA. There were many stories of an agonising, drawn-out closure process and the toxic political battles which further traumatised workers who were soon to lose their jobs. We didn’t know then that we were reporting on what was a foreshadowing of our futures at TTT. Yes, the same TTT of which everyone speaks so wistfully today! As we faced the end of our careers at the state television station, much of the public sentiment was bitter and venomous. No one had anything good to say about TTT. Our programming was boring, the news was biased and its reporters were incompetent. Ordinary workers were drawn and quartered in the court of public opinion for the sins of management and the consequences of incessant political interference.

Petrotrin compound wide
The iron skyline of the now-defunct Petrotrin

The widespread, public excoriation of TTT was hurtful, but there was no Facebook back then. What discarded Petrotrin workers are enduring is far worse than the blows we took in our day. YOU have to contend with public comments suggesting you’ll land on your feet nicely because of your golden parachute. In the absence of hard figures, people have got it into their heads that 5,000 plus workers skipped gaily off the Petrotrin compound with the winning lotto ticket. You can just rock back on your new sofa set that Courts will deliver just in time for Christmas. No need to ask the delivery man what time he’ll be there because you home whole day, ent? Don’t fret, just allow yourself to disappear into the 52-inch, surround-sound splendour of the flat screen TV that came with the downy-soft sofa set.

The truth is likely more nuanced than the public commentary and news reports suggest. You aren’t a mere statistical fraction of a faceless block called the 5,000. You don’t fit neatly into the ‘rough calculations’ in the newspapers and amateur online bean counters that talk about a major windfall for ex-workers. That’s why you’re probably scratching you’re head, wondering where all the extra zeroes on your cheque have gone.

Just like former Caroni, BWIA and, more recently, workers of the Tourism Development Company, you too have discovered yourself to be little more than meat for the political grinder. The workforce was made the convenient bogeyman for a bloodthirsty public desperate for an easy scapegoat. The self-appointed lynch mob needed a neck for the noose to account for everything that’s wrong with this country. Armchair experts who never scaled a rusty, rickety tank ladder or inhaled noxious fumes from an accidental leak think of you as an overpaid grease monkey and a leech on the public purse. The mob pounces because they foolishly believe with you gone somehow the economy will magically right itself.

Petrotrin tanks behind wire fence
Rust in peace. This plant was in advanced decay for several years.

There is no real analysis of what brought Petrotrin to its knees so citizens’ opinions are flavoured largely by their party card. They don’t want to know that, like any other organisation in this country, Petrotrin comprised hard-working men and women as well as lazy layabouts more interested in a paycheque than pitching in. No one will dispute that for every hard-hatted worker dutifully punching in on time for work every morning or evening, there was another puncheon-in at a rumshop in Marabella. If you can find a state enterprise in this country, though, that’s populated exclusively with conscientious workers who never submit invented overtime claims, you’ll probably also find a unicorn that never drove drunkā€¦not even once.

Additionally, no one wants to grapple with the reality of successive failed, bloated boards and management teams comprised of political puppets loaded with agendas. The public can’t buss their brains with all the different factors leading to the closure of Petrotrin. It wasn’t the contractor who was the friend of a minister. It wasn’t one government after the next using the company as a political tool. It’s all on you. It’s much easier to simply hang it all around the neck of one villain; you.

No one is denying the role the union played in the financial struggles faced by the company. Union leaders were the courtesans of the political classes. They got into bed with the politicians and changed their allegiances more frequently than the sheets. They threatened to shut down the country whenever it suited. The union, among others, stands over the corpse of Petrotrin. Ultimately, though, who was running the company? Was it the union or the management and the government? Who approved salary increases? Who signed the cheques? The same government that went to the population with horror stories about a wage bill dragging down the nation created that bloody wage bill!

None of that matters now, though. The country has had its public execution. There is no going back. The life you knew is behind you and the only choice left is to face the future. We know that’s easier said than done, particularly in a poorly-performing economy. 

Petrotrin pipelines behind wire fence
What will become of a facility that once fuelled this nation’s ambitions?

In this moment, you need to open yourself up to the possibility of hope. We’d like to offer some humble advice as people who have walked the path you now face.

~ Don’t even think of going it alone. There are thousands of you staring at the same uncertain future.  Get together as often as you can and build a support system.
~ Start up WhatsApp groups. Act like a neighbourhood watch group, but instead of looking for bandits, be on the lookout for job or business opportunities for each other.
~ Think about coming together to establish cooperatives or companies to create opportunities for yourselves. Travelling alone you may be able to go faster, but travelling together, you can go farther. 
~ Do some research into career options or business possibilities that aren’t affected by the protracted downturn of the T&T economy.
~ Don’t be afraid to look outside of T&T for any jobs or business opportunities that can help you provide for your families.
~ Be open to a complete change of careers. Who knows, this could be the start of your second life down a different career path?

Petrotrin tanks and pipelines
An era ends in a whimper as thousands drift into an uncertain future and the country drifts toward certain chaos.

There will be bad days. You are entitled to feel sorry for yourself, to cuss the skies, the guvament and everyone trash talking Petrotrin workers. Take your time to mope then start building your ‘next’. In so doing, always know that you can reach out to friends, family and former colleagues.

You are not alone. Rest assured that for every hurtful voice saying good riddance to Petrotrin, there are other silent voices who feel your pain and stand with you.

Yours in struggle,

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Thank you fellow Comrade in suffering. The truth about what was done to Petrotrin will come out. We the maligned Petrotrin worker will remember and talk decisively in 2020.

  2. Your observations provide much needed context to a place suffering from chronic amnesia. Booms and busts. Continuity and upheaval. The background sound track of the post colonial life of TT..

  3. HHHHMMMMMMMM what has gone wrong in Trinidad, this place used to be a hive of activity bustling with wealth and great opportunities for a good life. What happened???????????????????

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