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By George, he’s got it—maybe
At Thursday’s post-Cabinet news conference held at the Office of the Prime Minister in St Clair, Public Utilities Minister Emmanuel George referred to the fact that a Ugandan company had been contracted to assist the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) with its restructuring exercise.
Questioned directly on whether the WASA restructuring would mean a reduction in the labour force, Mr George said: “It’s a restructuring and it may, indeed, involve a reduction in the labour force.” Speaking later at the news conference, Mr George said he has been speaking about WASA’s excess staff since 2010 and no one has been laid off and he never said that workers would be laid off.
But he restated his position: “My response to the question just now was that in any restructuring, one expects that there could be some reduction in the numbers. So that is always on the cards when you are doing a restructuring.” He added that the Ugandan company was due to complete its exercise by September and it would be for the Government to accept or reject its recommendations.
While the minister used the words “may” and “could” in explaining the link between the WASA restructuring and an employee reduction, the case that Mr George outlined was much less conditional. The minister referred to the fact that in September 2010, in his contribution to the 2011 budget debate in the Senate, he had signalled that WASA was in need of restructuring.
Mr George argued that in 2000 WASA had arrived at a staff complement of 2,033 employees as a result of a voluntary separation programme and that this was the staff com- plement that was aligned to an international benchmark for a utility the size of WASA, in a country of T&T’s development.
On Thursday, Mr George made the point that between 2000 and 2010, WASA’s staff numbers jumped dramatically from 2,033 to over 4,800, with “no improvement in the water supply to the population.” Having established that WASA is in need of restructuring, and that its employee numbers are more than twice the international benchmark and its own staff complement from 12 years ago, the minister was stating clearly that the utility has more workers than it needs as well as serious productivity issues.
Mr George also made the point that the ordinary woman-in-the-street taxpayer is paying through her nose for the chronic, structural inefficiency of WASA, by way of the annual government subsidy to the utility, which exceeds $1 billion. This is money that could be used to improve the quality of the nation’s schools, its hospitals or its police stations.
In the context of WASA carrying significant employee fat—and the Government’s reluctance to increase water rates before significant improvements are made in the provision of water across the nation—it seems obvious, even trite, that the only way the utility will lose weight is by offering its employees voluntary separation packages similar to those of 2000.
The minister’s attempt, in an interview with a radio station yesterday, to backtrack from his conditional acceptance of the position that restructuring may involve employee reduction is very surprising, especially in the context of Mr George’s previous incarnation as the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Public Utilities.
While the minister may choose to couch his words in a politician’s conditional language, most of the population would assert that WASA’s restructuring must involve some level of employee reduction for the utility to be returned to some modicum of efficiency and productivity.
If Mr George does not accept that fact—if it is a bullet that he is not prepared to bite, chew and swallow—then it is quite likely that WASA’s employee numbers will continue to grow organically over time, making it even more unwieldy, and further delaying the day of reckoning. He would then be guilty of committing the political mistake that he now accuses his predecessors of making.
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