Employee woes go unheeded at T & T Consulate

Employees at the Trinidad and Tobago consulate in New York (a goodly number of them, anyway) have been living a nightmare since the current consul general, Nan Ramgoolam, assumed the position in 2011. In having the New York consulate headed by Ramgoolam, the government of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar abandoned a long-standing policy of career diplomats filling such posts. Ramgoolam, formerly a member of Bissessar’s cabinet, had been shuffled out of her cabinet slot relatively early in the life of the Bissessar government. And as if to validate concerns about political hacks being assigned to professional foreign service duty, it has become increasingly clear to many that operations at the New York consulate are being driven by naked partisan considerations.

In a series of draconian moves, Ramgoolam, presumably doing the bidding of superiors, initiated regressive changes that made the consulate more reminiscent of a 1920s workplace. In 2012, eight staffers, including long-serving individuals (10, 15 and more years on the job) were summarily terminated. This was action ostensibly arising from a first-of-its-kind exam mandated for the staff, the exam’s fair-mindedness very much questioned both internally by staff as well as outside observers. Workers (some of whom, again, were long-serving members of staff), whose original permanent status had earlier been amended to two-year-contract service providers, had another change in status imposed, namely, new contractual arrangements of six months duration. Unlike the two-year deal, the new contract was stripped bare of even minimal workplace entitlements. In order to be renewed, the six-month contract requires the employee/contractor to be off the job for one week without pay at the end of the six- month tour, thence to re-apply for the “vacated” position. There is also no provision in this contract for paid absences from the job for medical or any other reasons.

This is of course stone-age behavior to which the consulate employees are being subjected. It would be bad enough, were this to be explained simply as the conduct of a renegade employer, unconcerned about basic standards that should govern the labor-management relationship. Infinitely worse is that appearances strongly suggest a more sinister origination of the Trinidad and Tobago government’s unloading on these besieged consulate staffers.

The foreign affairs minister when the Bissessar government assumed office in 2010 was Suruj Rambachan. Rambachan’s track record has had him widely pegged as uncompromisingly racist for quite a while now. His undertaking to the consulate staff back when he came aboard, that he intended to “change the face” of the consulate, many believe, is what’s being borne out in the rash of autocratic operational “reforms” introduced at the consulate.

Any objective look at the narrative since Ramgoolam’s arrival makes it difficult to refute suggestions of some kind of orchestrated purge at the consulate. Apart from what reportedly was an intimidating presence she immediately imposed, making for a tension-filled working environment, Ramgoolam is thought by some to have conceived or been party to subterfuge attempts aimed at facilitating the darker “purge” objective. The aforementioned written examination laid on staff in summer 2012 was one such. More recently, there’s been a furor over employees holding A-2 visas issued by the U.S. State Department. Although this is well known to be a long existing practice through which individuals who aren’t U.S. citizens or permanent residents are permitted to work, consulate staff so classified have been advised that their visas would not be submitted for renewal. Reportedly, despite a green light coming from the permanent secretary in the foreign affairs ministry – the nominal head of the foreign service — for the visa renewal routine to proceed as normal, another government figure, attorney general Anand Ramlogan, weighed in to declare that holders of A-2 visas should no longer be employed. Ramlogan’s edict, intimating something inappropriate or unlawful about such hires, has been roundly challenged and indeed dismissed as groundless. Our own checking, elsewhere in the legation community, brought the same reaction of perfectly legitimate hiring practice with respect to A-2 visa holders.

A member of the Bissessar government summoning the chutzpah to override the U.S. take on what is and isn’t permissible on a U.S.-issued visa, if that’s what went down here, would be a laugh-provoking absurdity, had the end game not involved trifling with the welfare of defenseless workers. That there’s been a deliberate campaign of degradation directed at consulate employees whose tenure pre-dates Ramgoolam’s arrival seems at this point entirely plausible.

In which case the goings-on at the consulate should elicit a reaction of: “There they go again!” The government of Prime Minister Bissessar has so often now displayed a cavalier attitude toward episodes of wrongdoing, it has become practically a defining administration marker. Although she evidently wasn’t a blazing success as a government minister and had to be soon sent packing, the scuttlebutt is that Consul General Ramgoolam has parlayed supposedly close ties to Bissessar into license for a “loose cannon” manner of handling consulate affairs.

But more troubling, for sure, than Ramgoolam enjoying cronyism privileges that permit running roughshod over folks in the government’s employ, is whether, as many suggest, turbulence in the New York outpost has directly to do with marching orders to purge the operation (per Suruj Rambachan’s “changed face”) of perceived political non-support. Now, that would be scandalous and would of course be straightaway vociferously denied. But if it walks like a duck…

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