In December, Prime Minister Keith Rowley had announced with much bluster and arrogance the implementation of “quasi-safe zones” for public sector workers. This is basically mandatory vaccination, although it still awaits legal definition by the Government.
This vague, undefined policy, however, has generated significant push back from the workers. It is another part of Rowley’s coalition that has broken away from him.
At the time of writing, Rowley has had to hold back and delay implementation.
Rowley’s lack of consultation, cooperation and competence demonstrates the madness of the PNM’s covid-19 policy. It explains why under Keith Rowley and the PNM we have the highest covid death rate in the world, even compared to countries with a lower vaccination rate.
UNC’s position on so-called Safe Zones
The UNC’s position is clear. We have pushed for widespread vaccination in order for our economy and society to open up as quickly as possible.
From the start, the PNM government were lazy and neglectful about vaccines, allowing our other Caribbean islands to get free donated vaccines from the government of India, months before we started to get our own shipments. Keith Rowley insulted our Caribbean neighbours, questioned those vaccines, and attacked the Leader of Opposition and private sector for attempting to bring in vaccines more quickly than the Government could.
However, the UNC does not support mandatory vaccination. Please see the Editorial (click here) for the Political Leader’s statement on the matter.
Trade Unions opposed to “Quasi-Safe Zones”
The major trade unions have expressed their objections to the government’s proposed “quasi-safe zone” policies as well.
Keith Rowley then attacked the unions.
We at The Checklist. sat down with union leaders and social activists who have expressed opposing opinions to the government on its so-called “quasi-safe zones”. These were:
- Michael Annisette, Secretary General of the National Trade Union Centre (NATUC)
- Letitia Cox (2nd Vice President of the Trinidad and Tobago Registered Nurses Association)
- Rudranath Indarsingh (Shadow Minister of Labour for the UNC, and former Secretary General of the All-Trinidad Sugar Estates and General Workers Trade Union), and also
- Brian Baig, Attorney-at-Law with a special interest in workers’ rights
You can see the full conversation here ==> Click Here. We recommend it.
To be clear, we have not asked these unions and activists to endorse the United National Congress, but we did sit down with them in our Panel Discussion to understand their points of view on the matter.
We also make it clear that the views of the trade unionists and other panellists are not necessarily those of the United National Congress.
This is a “safe zone” for expressing differing ideas and opinions, which is essential to democracy and free society, for which the UNC vehemently and strongly stands.
Trade Unions question: “What is a Quasi-Safe Zone?”
The Opposition has raised the issue that no legislation has been brought to parliament, and nowhere else has the idea of a “quasi-safe zone” been legally defined by the Government.
According to MP Rudranath Indarsingh, “I will tell the Prime Minister that this creation of a quasi-safe zone must be seen in the context of mandatory and forced vaccination. This is not the creation of any safe zone. And that is why I continue to say that the Prime Minister is leading with the highest degree of conmanship and deceit and propaganda.”
Letitia Cox from the TTRNA noted importantly, “We cannot say it’s a safe zone in terms of what the government has has defined a safe zone to be, because if you go to the restaurant and you go to the bus, they are claiming that the patrons and the proprietors must be vaccinated. However, in a healthcare setting, where they are demanding that the healthcare workers be vaccinated, the patients don’t all come in as vaccinated persons. So that means that it is not really in their definition of a safe zone. So we have some concerns about that.”
Michael Annisette agrees, further observing, “The government did not engage the trade union movement on this question of making the public service, state enterprises and other government entities quasi-safe zones.”
“What is a quasi-safe zone? One has to ask ourselves that particular question in the context, did the safe zones that the government set up work? We in NATUC, based on our analysis, we are saying ‘No’.”
What is the Unions’ Position on Vaccination?
When asked about the unions’ positions on vaccination, there was a diversity of opinion, but all stressed the importance of choice.
Michael Annisette forwarded, “The question that the public must ask is whether or not [there is a difference between] a vaccinated person or unvaccinated person, given the science that is now revealing itself, where it has been established clearly and without doubt that you can be vaccinated, but the question of spreading the virus still arises.”
“Let me make it clear from a NATUC perspective – this is not a vaccine. Everyone who understands what is a vaccine would understand when you have to take continuous booster shots over a six months period, and in some instances less than that, we are not talking about a vaccine.
The Nurses Association lent support to that position. According to Letitia Cox, “As a nurse, and what we are trained to do, we deal with evidence based nursing, and we look at the research that has been done, and we looked at the World Health Organisation in terms of making a vaccine mandatory. They say look at the efficacy, and they went into detail in terms of the effectiveness how long the vaccine lasts.
“So there is some merit in what my comrade is saying in that the the there is that need for booster shots ever so often, and you know some shorter than others, so it’s not like our old vaccines.”
“I think they’re still working on it, so it should not be mandated, as guided by the World Health Organisation. But I wouldn’t want to throw it out altogether because it’s all that they have right now. But it should be that person’s individual choice to choose if they want to accept the vaccine or not.”
“You cannot mandate something that is still under some level of trial. People must agree. People must consent.”
Social Activist Gary Aboud has publicly expressed justifiable scepticism, which is not often entertained in the current climate. He has argued, “We take the time to find out. We don’t let people make decisions for us. All of the anti-vaxxers, or the vaccine hesitant, or the persons who are skeptical about the agenda behind the production and dissemination of the vaccine share in common one thing: inquisitive. We don’t like people to tell us what to do without us having a fair right of consent.”
“The vaccine injected are getting the sickness and, in my personal experience, are as sick or more sick. They argue, well we don’t die. Well my mother died. And she took the vaccine, all of them. And I know other people that died. So don’t tell me that they don’t die when they get covid.”
“But of course my mother’s classification wasn’t that from covid that from heart failure, blood clot. That’s different, but it’s one of the recorded suspicions of the 60,000 doctors who wrote to the CDC requesting answers. The data is being incorrectly collected.”
To be clear, this is not the UNC’s position. But we do respect the rights of citizens to ask genuine questions, and to receive accurate and truthful information. That is the only way a healthy society can move forward and overcome challenges.
Are “Quasi-Safe Zones” just Mandatory Vaccination by Stealth?
The UNC has made it clear that it sees these undefined “quasi-safe zones” as a way to introduce mandatory vaccination in the public sector. Prime Minister Rowley has denied this, but he has presented no legislation to support his assertion.
Shadow Minister of Labour, Rudranath Indarsingh, repeats the Opposition’s position on the matter, “We are in support of vaccination, but it must not be mandatory to the point where it is unconstitutional, in terms of especially Section 4 of the constitution of Trinidad and Tobago.”
Attorney Brian Baig added, “We must understand that this is not the first time the Prime Minister vis-a-vis the government has spoken on mandatory vaccines. The Prime Minister actually started this conversation in July of 2021 when he came out in those press conferences that he holds on a Saturday.
“I want to remind not only members of this panel, but [all] who will be seeing this, is that there’s something called the Constitutional Republic of Trinidad and Tobago which was spoken earlier by one of our panelists. I’ll go a little further to state that not only section four, you have Sections 4, 5 and 6 together: these are the fundamental rights of our citizens in Trinidad and Tobago, where you have with the rights of choice, your rights to choose.”
“A person still has the right to choose if they want to take a vaccine or not, whether it is an experimental drug or a full-fledged vaccine. We must understand that by you doing this, you are now compromising citizens to have to now make a choice. Now you’re making them understand that ‘I don’t have a choice no more.’ That is wrong by any government to do that.”
“The Prime Minister must also understand by what he has done, he is also now going to compromise what is called medical confidentiality. I had to tell persons, you do not give up your medical information because that is private and confidential, and the right of privacy is under the constitution again, under sections 4, 5 and 6. And a Government must never, ever trample on fundamental rights.”
Nurses Pro-Vaccine and Pro-Choice
The UNC’s position is both pro-vaccination and pro-choice. This position is similar to the TTRNA.
Cox herself is triple vaccinated, particularly because of her exposure to patients as a nurse, but she advocates that every person is entitled to their personal choice on the matter.
Cox explained the nurses’ position further, “The Association has been very clear, we came out very early. We sent out a notice to the public and our membership stating that while we are pro-vaccine, we believe in vaccines, we believe in the power of vaccines and what it can do, we believe that it can give an extra, added protection to the person, but we do believe that you should have the choice.
“You should retain your ability to choose to have that vaccine. We are guided by the World Health Organisation. They have a document which came out April 4, 2021 stating that they do not believe mandatory vaccinations should be instituted. It should be a very, very last resort, because it erodes public trust and confidence. They say that moral suasion and education should be the best way in order to encourage persons to accept the vaccine.”
“If you look at the percentage in terms of vaccination, you would see health care workers are higher than all the other services. Nurses were just over 65% in November and I believe it may be higher by now. We are thinking that if you did more in terms of specific education and moral suasion, they would have gotten to the point where they wanted the nurses and midwives to be.”
“Increasing vaccination through public education and moral suasion, we believe in it. One of the things that i’ve always stressed in my interviews is that you cannot use a broad brush for everybody. There are different groups in society. You have to speak their language. There’s a language that the protective services will speak. There’s a language that healthcare workers would speak. If they want to sell the vaccine, they need to speak to them in their language, and their campaign must be group specific. So there needs to be education. We will go once again with the World Health Organization — efficacy, efficiency.”
MP Indarsingh added, “I challenge the Minister to say that he has had or he has had his staff through the Ministry of Health go with mobile units and educational personnel from a medical point of view and hold what we might term community caravans, in community centers, work with village councils and so on, that could reflect that community engagement has been explored to the hilt.”
Against Threats To Workers’ Jobs
All representatives were unanimous in their opposition to Keith Rowley’s threats to send home workers over the issue of vaccination, or the jab as others insist on calling it.
Michael Annisette articulated his opposition to the nonsensical threat to workers’ jobs over these undefined safe zones, “So if [the safe zone] didn’t work, what will prompt the government to now talk about a quasi-safe zone, in the context that they are now saying, ‘Listen if you are not vaccinated you will not be allowed to come to work and you will be furloughed’, which is not part of our lexicon in our industrial relations language?
“Secondly, after a while you will be dismissed — not because you committed any crime, not because you breached the collective agreement, but because they determine as the government – unilaterally – that if you do not vaccinate, you will not be allowed to come into the government-created safe zone.”
Indarsingh concurs from the Opposition point of view, “Taking in the consideration from a collective bargaining point of view, terms and conditions of employment, we see it as a flagrant abuse of the collective bargaining process as guided in terms of its day-to-day operation under the Industrial Relations of Trinidad and Tobago.”
Attorney Brian Baig added, “There’s also the OSHA Act, which is the Occupational Safety And Health Act, and you are now causing workers to figure, are they going to be affected at work? And that is wrong too.”
“The OSHA Act is also quite clear when it comes to the whole issue where they’re saying workers have to present a PCR test. The OSHA Act is quite clear. It says it is it is the the responsibility of the employer to cover the PCR test, not the worker. I’m open to be challenged by anyone because I have been dealing with that of late.”
“You have some workers who are daily rated employees — I’m a former daily rated employee — you are telling workers don’t come to work. You don’t show up for three days, they can easily come and say you abandon your job and you are sent home. You’ve lost your job. I have told two persons who came to my office today, ‘Go to work. Make them tell you go home. Get it in writing from your permanent secretary, or from your CEO of the Regional Corporation.”
“I am saying here today that I am prepared. I will be fighting for workers if this thing truly comes about and people are sent home. Enough is enough! The nonsense has to stop now. Do not trample on our constitution and do not defeat or destroy our democracy of Trinidad and Tobago!”
“Safe Zones” as Apartheid and Discrimination
NATUC is also opposed to the issue of segregation on the basis of vaccination. Annisette argued,
“So, therefore the narrative by the Government does not support the realities outside there. So the question of ‘safe zones’, we believe, is an introduction of apartheid in Trinidad and Tobago is discriminatory. It segregates the population, and that is not our culture.”
“So that question of a safe zone does not exist, because with taking the jab you have the potential (and it has been proven) of still getting covid. So this is discriminatory, this has no basis in logic, it has to basis in fact, and we see it within the trade union movement as just an effort by the government to force workers to take the jab for obvious reasons.”
Government Mistreating Health Care Workers
It is incredible that during a pandemic, nurses have been treated so badly. Years of neglect and mistreatment have now come to a head and reveal themselves at the worst possible time. How can the Government’s commitment to dealing with the pandemic be taken seriously when it treats its frontline workers so badly?
Cox explains, “Health workers such as nurses and midwives have been vaccine shamed. We have been ridiculed. We have been bouffed, and I’m talking from the Minister of Health, from the Prime Minister, and we believe that this is very disappointing. The nurses are very disheartened because it’s not only this situation we’re looking at. We’re also looking at how the government as a whole valued us.”
“We are looking at how the other islands and countries have appreciated their healthcare workers. What Grenada, St. Kitts, Guyana, what all these countries have done for their health workers. However, in Trinidad and Tobago here, we are being forced.”
“So there are one hundred nurses [who are leaving Trinidad and Tobago] and that’s approximate. I believe we underestimated the numbers because we only took figures or estimates from certain departments within the various RHAs. So these nurses would have made a decision to migrate because the terms and conditions that are being offered here in Trinidad and Tobago leaves little to be desired.
“You cannot go and get a mortgage with a one-year temporary contract. You cannot get a mortgage with a six-month contract. You have no job security. The nurses are also complaining that they are not getting promotional opportunities. Even when they go and they do their additional programs, it takes them 10 years, sometimes when they’re close to retirement, they are now getting an opportunity to probably be a supervisor or a nurse. It’s very frustrating. Then when you do get that position, it’s only about two hundred dollars or five hundred dollars from what you would normally get.”
“When you look at the other essential services like the police and the the army, they get allotment of housing. Nurses get nothing.”
“Do you know that the nurse here gets a living out allowance of a hundred dollars? That’s what they get towards housing and renting an apartment. A hundred dollars. You can’t even rent a dog house with a hundred dollars. Please. You cannot do that. So the value and respect for health care workers, out the door.”
“One other thing I would want to add in a nurse contacted me yesterday and told me the NCRHA, their HR Department contacted her and told her they are not renewing her contract because she is unvaccinated. And she has been working with them since 2016. Is that value? They’re scraping to get staff when the day comes, but you’re sending home your staff that’s saving lives. That can’t be right.”
Health Care System Destroyed Even Before Covid
While nurses are being blamed and bouffed, the PNM Government has made a mess of the health care system.
“In terms of they saying that we are unpatriotic or we are not supporting, yes we are seeing the persons dying. We are seeing. We are there on the front line. We are the persons who are receiving the patients. But we want to say that this influx of patients has a direct relation and correlation to the destruction of the community health care service within our country.
“We are under-resourced in the community. If anybody knows about community healthcare, it deals with prevention and health promotion. Right now, we don’t have sufficient staffing. They actually starve the training for those community health workers. The RHAs have been reluctant send persons to train. It’s very minute. Community nurses go out to train and they send very little, so they were already under-resourced.”
“So now you have little to no persons to help with calling persons who have been infected, monitoring them, ensuring that you do proper contact tracing to ensure that persons who have been in contact with an infected person are contacted and ensure that they are quarantined.”
“What we also have is a break down in terms of persons getting health care on time. So many persons are dying because they are not getting the intervention on time because we have been under-resourced, even before the pandemic.”
“So it’s a situation where the Regional Health Authorities are not managing their resources properly. And their hiring practices, their contracts that they are giving to their health workers, it is poor and leaves little to be desired. Right now, both nurses, midwives and doctors are on temporary and short-term contracts. Is that value?”
Testing, contact tracing to limit the spread of covid; the hiring and training of more community health workers; and improving ICU capacity are crucial, according to the Nurses Association.
Dialogue on Covid-19 Policy Needed
Trade Unionists also suggested using other treatments, as well as vaccines. Perhaps this might be a way to earn trust and eventually bring at least some additional people to accept vaccines as well. It is a matter of trust building, and overcoming scepticism.
Cox emphasised the need to follow the health protocols as vaccines were not guarantee to not contracting covid, neither for spreading it.
Michael Annisette from NATUC spoke about medicines, other treatments, and more consultation.
Indeed, he argues, “The point that we are making in the trade union is how you articulate your message, how you engage the community, how you engage in people who would be affected by your decision. That is a fundamental principle of democracy.”
“You are going to make a decision that is going to affect me and you are telling me that I don’t have a right to engage you, to discuss how I feel, what I think?”
“We call this in the lexicon of industrial relations language, social dialogue. This government is part of the ILO [International Labour Organisation] — 178 members — and that is one of the fundamental principles of the ILO: the question of social dialogue.”
“It’s the only UN organization that has a tripartite mechanism. What do I mean by that? representatives from labour, government and business, who sit around a table and build consensus in order to come up with recommendations and conventions as it relates to labor rights and policies. And it works well in the ILO.”
Opposition To Mandatory Vaccines is NOT “Unpatriotic”
The Government’s attack on critics and opponents of mandatory vaccination as being “unpatriotic” is dangerous, antagonistic and unnecessarily polarising, at a time when we all need to be working together.
Responding to the Government, Baig countered, “I would say the fact that you are trampling on you rights of citizens is unpatriotic! Because if that is allowed and if that happens, well I will say like what I said to another media house: that I will ask many persons to join with me and I’ll take a copy of the constitution and I’ll burn it in front of the Hall Of Justice, or maybe in front of the Red House!”
MP Indarsingh added, “People may say I’m being irresponsible, but history is rife with examples that civil disobedience — in keeping with peaceful protests and the laws of the country — at times the means justifies the end in realising what you want to achieve, in terms of protecting human rights and the civil liberties of our society.”
Gary Aboud also declared, “I am unpatriotic? [Our concern and opposition] doesn’t make us unpatriotic. It makes us more patriotic than anybody else!”
“I’m very worried about the future of our country. The social dislocation — it’s a declaration of war! They’ve declared war. They’re going to starve out people.”
“Unless we do something very quickly to mobilise a clear consensus of something. Something. I’m willing to go and burn the constitution if it will bring some publicity to the issue. I don’t mind.”
“I know where my heart is, and my heart is with the decisions that come out of people like those who are speaking here tonight, and I will follow.”
Keith Rowley is taking this country down a dangerous path and the people are rebelling.
In his dictatorial manner, he is discarding democracy and social dialogue. This is producing unrest similar to some of the worst times we have experienced in our history.
This is not helping democracy or our fight against covid. Rowley’s dictatorial policies are making everything worse.