Q: Archbishop J, What does Catholic social teaching say about the layoff of workers?
The Petrotrin workers are in the hearts and minds of our nation these days as closure of the refinery and the end of their employment approach. This is a difficult one for our collective unconscious. It is difficult for our national pride and hard to make sense of since we are still primarily an energy sector nation.
We have precedent. We closed BWIA, the flagship of the nation, although it was replaced with Caribbean Airlines. We also closed Caroni (1975) Ltd, formally ending our historical connections with our past—slavery and indentured labour—in the sugar industry.
Let us feel with our brothers and sisters whose lives have been plunged into anxiety, uncertainty and chaos. Losing a job is traumatic. It takes a lot to work through the emotions and emerge better on the other side.
Like all forms of death and loss, there are five stages to the grief process—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and then acceptance. Each person will go through each of these stages. Each stage is important.
People in grief need people who are good listeners who will support and allow the person to tell the story over and over. Our first call as Church is to become good listeners, to offer pastoral support: to be the face of love pointing the way to hope. This we must do as individuals, families and Church communities. Let us find tangible ways to support our brothers and sisters through this traumatic time.
When an organisation spends more than it earns, the problem of sustainability arises. This is true for families, clubs, businesses and nations. Ultimately, we can only spend what we earn.
BWIA, Caroni and Petrotrin all spent way in excess of earnings, producing unsustainable loses, which meant the average citizen was subsidising their operations. We were paying their bill every month.
Many have pointed out that the closure of the refinery was perhaps long overdue and that the crisis was 25 years in the making. Others, like the unions, believe the country should continue footing the bill each year to subsidise the refinery and keep people in jobs. Whereas there is no specific Catholic social teaching (CST) on this matter, there is plenty that we need to reflect on.
Justice has three interconnected elements: contributive, distributive and contractual justice. The three together make up social justice. In the Petrotrin case, rather than the company contributing to the society and the common good, it has been depleting the common resources and thus moving money from the society to individuals in a company.
If Petrotrin were a department of social welfare it would be justified. But as a state company that is expected to contribute to the wealth of the nation this arrangement is unjust and has been unsustainable for many years.
Pope John Paul II taught in Centesimus Annus, 43 (1991): “Ownership of the means of production, whether in industry or agriculture, is just and legitimate if it serves useful work. It becomes illegitimate, however, when it is not utilised or when it serves to impede the work of others, in an effort to gain a profit which is not the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society, but rather is the result of curbing them or of illicit exploitation, speculation, or the breaking of solidarity among working people.”
The passage spells out a basic principle. A business becomes illegitimate when it is not the result of overall expansion of the work and wealth of the society.
Priority of Labour over Capital
One of the tenets of CST is the priority of labour over capital. St John Paul II made this explicit in his encyclical, On Human Work, 12. He says: “We must emphasise and give prominence to the primacy of the human in the production process, the primacy of the human over things. Everything contained in the concept of capital in the strict sense is only a collection of things. The human, as the subject of work, and independently of the work that he does—the human alone is a person. This truth has important and decisive consequences.”
We are living in an age of late American capitalism; we have become accustomed to think in terms of the priority of capital. St John Paul II asks us to think of the priority of labour.
From this perspective everything should be done to safeguard the dignity of the worker. Here, in a strange and quirky way, the owners of Petrotrin (successive governments), the successive boards, management and the unions failed the worker. If you fight to raise salaries beyond what can be sustainable, you contribute to the closure of the company.
If the worker has priority, the viability of the company must be secured. The board and union members, many years ago, should have worked together to ensure long-term sustainability.
Corporate social responsibility now speaks about the bottom line of a business being quadruple—how you treat your employees, your customers, the environment and shareholders. All are important.
Fr Godfrey Stoute, parish priest of St Peter’s Church, Pointe-à-Pierre organised a Mass of solidarity for Petrotrin workers. It was a time of great hope and encouragement.
After Mass I was able to speak with several of those affected. One man who worked for Petrotrin spoke out. He has been a temporary worker for 29 years. This in itself is an injustice. People deserve tenure of office.
Some 1,500 Petrotrin workers are temporary. It is reported they have so far walked home with nothing: neither the Government nor the union has had conversations with them. This is injustice.
The man said to me: “No one is speaking with me”. The first challenge is that a government keeps workers temporary for 29 years. The second is using that to avoid obligations to the person employed.
It seems the permanent workers will get good packages. Many have offered to give these workers financial counsel to ensure they invest wisely for the future. This is what is expected.
The emotional and spiritual counselling is also vital to move through the five stages of grief. The parish has done a great job in addressing the needs of those who have sought its help. In addition to the Mass, services of healing and opportunities for counselling have been offered. So much more is needed.
Key Message: Petrotrin is for us a call to responsibility in the management of our affairs as a young nation. This requires responsibility in operating the business of the State and responsibility in caring for employees.
Action Step: Retrenchment is a trauma that requires support and attentive listening. For those around families who have been directly affected, listen, support and pray with them. For the rest of us let us pray for them during this difficult time.
Scripture Passage: Micah 6:8