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Govt weighs offer for sale of port

Trinidad Guardian, 9 August 2000

AMID questions and concerns from various interests, including the PNM and the Seamen and Waterfront Workers' Trade Union (SWWTU), Works Minister Sadiq Baksh insisted yesterday the Government does not intend to completely "privatise" the Port Authority, but merely invite proposals for a "joint venture" sale.

This decision, he said, was due to the fact that the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago "has been in shambles for decades." Baksh, who was speaking to the Guardian after his Senate sitting, said no concrete decision on this matter had yet been made. He admitted, however, that the Government intends to invite both local and foreign companies to tender for such a venture. Thus far, he acknowledged, the local company, Shipping Association of Trinidad and Tobago, has already expressed its interest.

This follows recent concerns from Francis Mungroo, president of the SWWTU, that he had been "reliably informed" the Government intends to sell the Port Authority to the privately-owned Port of Singapore Authority (PSA).

Junior Works Minister Carlos John corroborated Baksh's statement, yesterday, insisting though, that nothing had yet been finalised on this issue. However, he added, this move towards semi-privatisation is not a "novel" concept, but something that has been in the works for almost four years.

Mungroo on the other hand, reiterated his concerns in a telephone interview yesterday, and insisted this was a "strange" way of doing things. He noted that John was "up to recently" insisting the Port Authority sign a memorandum agreeing with the Ministry of Work's proposals, John acknowledged this to be true.

The Government is not going through the normal procedure in this matter, Mungroo insisted. He added that the SWWTU was especially concerned, since, "wherever there is privatisation their is normally retrenchment."

Mungroo also said the SWWTU is not in a hurry for privatisation, but would prefer it be done "like Pt Lisas" - in a joint venture, where nationals of T&T, including the Port workers, are stakeholders.

From 1994 to today, he said, the management of the PATT, as well as the port workers, have been working under "sometimes dangerous conditions such as faulty equipment", to make the port successful as it is today.

Now, when it seems to be earning surpluses, he stated, and when it has not relied in these years on the Government's treasury, there is a move to privatise it. The Opposition PNM has also agreed to the fact that the Port Authority has, in recent years, experienced profits.

Political leader of the party, Patrick Manning, further condemned the Government for trying to sell the Port and its operations "like a thief in the night." In a statement issued yesterday, Manning said the Government should be "honest with the citizens."

He said they should say whether they have sold "without the management consent" this "important State sector to the PSA."

Port Authority General Manager Colin Lucas said in an interview yesterday there was indeed a move towards "private participation" but stressed the business plan was still before Cabinet and has been for the past two months. As such, he said, it was only if the plan was approved the "Port will be in a position to explore both possibilities with local and international partners." He also acknowledged the plans for privatisation has indeed been in the works for over four years.

Lucas also said "in the Port Authority's view" the Government should retain the majority of shares. He further insisted the workers will definitely be consulted.

"The Port Authority will not go into anything of this magnitude without consulting the relevant unions," Lucas stressed.