Signalling the start of a new, more harmonious relationship with the local construction sector, Works and Transport Minister Jack Warner told contractors two Saturdays ago that the People’s Partnership Government had utmost faith in them.
“We are proud of you and what you have designed and built in our country. And, I ask you here tonight to become part of my team, for even if as ‘coach’ I may sound harsh to others sometimes, I hope you will now understand that it is the work we do together that will rebuild our economy that matters, not the words we utter,” he said while delivering the feature address at the Trinidad and Tobago Contractors Association’s (TTCAs) Annual Banquet and Awards Ceremony at the Hilton Trinidad in Port-of-Spain.
Although economists have painted a grim picture of the country’s economy, in light of the ongoing world financial crisis, Warner believes the construction sector, once properly managed, will assist tremendously in revitalising the local economy by way of sustainable job creation and private sector participation.
In the meantime, he said, the Government was attempting to mend fences within the sector, firstly by seeking to pay out the huge debt owed to contractors in bonds and by promoting a congenial atmosphere from which to conduct future business.
“We are open to meeting with you, and indeed consultants, to find a means of settling all of the verified accounts and claims which you have against the State,” Warner said during the function.
“We are aware that this process must begin immediately and a formula agreed upon and implemented within the shortest possible time.”
Speaking on the theme, “The Role of the Construction Industry in the Development of Trinidad and Tobago,” the minister also agreed, albeit ambitiously, to map out a plan for the resurgence of the sector towards this end.
And, in extending an olive branch, pledged to listen to the contractors’ suggestions in accelerating projects “for we know that when you go back to work, the manufacturers go back to work, masons, carpenters and labourers go back to work and the country begins to get back on the road to development.”
The plan ranged from the upgrade of existing bridges, culverts and other basic infrastructure to the construction of new roads, highways, hospitals, health care facilities, police stations, fire stations, district government offices and a modern licensing office in central Trinidad.
Warner also pointed out, in a clear reference to the PNM, that tall buildings within the capital city will also be a thing of the past under the new administration.
Welcoming the move to stimulate the sector, former chairman of the Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute (TTTI) Victor Hart said traditionally the Government has used the construction sector as the conduit for channeling most public sector investments into the national economy.
This, he said last week, was done through the construction of infrastructure that facilitated the development of various sectors of the economy to satisfy the needs of the population.
“Such investments recognise that the construction sector is the largest employment generator among all sectors of the economy and stimulates the growth in manufacturing of building materials and goods and the growth of service industries,” Hart said.
TTCA President Mikey Joseph said with the energy sector on the low, construction was the only field with the ability to generate activity that would allow for most sectors of the economy to become active.
Claiming the sector currently employed 70,000 persons, down from 112,000 in September 2008, Joseph said with constructive planning the latter figure could again be realised.
“Increased activity in construction would also stimulate banking, insurance, manufacturing, quarrying, transport and food catering sectors,” Joseph told Sunday Newsday in an e-mail interview. “The construction sector also has the ability to earn foreign exchange if the players are given the necessary support.”
Outspoken executive chairman of NH International Emile Elias also sees the local construction fraternity playing a pivotal role in taking TT out of its economic slump.
He said on Wednesday that the country was inundated with unmet needs, including housing, healthcare and schools.
“In the normal course of satisfying those unmet needs, any government is going to need the local construction sector and so the sector will certainly look forward to be part of the construction work that will be required to satisfy those priorities. And I am confident that, in time, this will happen,” said Elias.
For many in the gathering at the TTCA gala, Warner’s assurances of a rejuvenated construction sector signalled a marked departure from the often acrimonious relationship that existed between contractors and the former People’s National Movement (PNM) government within the last decade.
It appeared to provide hope and a sense of pride among the group, whose contribution to local development, it was felt, had largely gone unrecognised and unvalued.
This was due to a general feeling that the PNM, throughout much of its tenure, was perceived as openly favouring foreign contractors over locals, particularly on multi-million dollar projects such as the Prime Minister’s Residence and Diplomatic Centre, the National Academy for the Performing Arts and the University of Trinidad and Tobago.
Former prime minister Patrick Manning, on several occasions, was critical of the work of some members of the sector.
In March, two months before the general election, tension erupted between the PNM regime and contractors after it was reported that Manning had said during a public meeting in St Joseph that he was in war with contractors.
Manning clarified in a statement from the Office of the Prime Minister days later that he was not in a literal war with the contractors but “some elements in it” as it related to delivery in key public sector projects.
The former PM made it clear that his government was “not now nor has it ever been in any literal war with any group or person in Trinidad and Tobago,”acknowledging that “cost overruns, shoddy workmanship and serious delays had plagued several of the housing developments.”
Manning noted that “many of those projects had to be stopped or are being reconditioned post-completion and this has clearly caused severe hardship for many of the people of Trinidad and Tobago who seek to occupy those homes.”
The PNM, it appeared, had been monitoring the performance of contractors on several projects and were dissatisfied with the level of production by certain groups in the sector.
In 2007, then National Security Minister Martin Joseph announced in the Parliament his intention to turn to Chinese contractors to complete five police stations after locals failed to deliver them the year before, as scheduled.
“I find myself as the Minister of National Security in one of the most embarrassing positions,” Joseph had said adding that none of the police stations was completed.
Former Works Minister Colm Imbert, during the sitting, added: “People are complaining about the Government importing Chinese labour for projects, but we have had to change contractors working on the Wrightson Road project (in Port-of-Spain) three times because of their inefficiencies.”
Elias said he was impressed by Warner’s overtures, noting that the industry had always been willing to work with any Government.
“Our job is to co-operate with whoever is the Government, but the local construction sector was under attack by Manning and his small cadre of ministers,” he said
Elias recalled that the People’s Partnership had pledged, during the run-up to the election, that they would be supportive of national development.
“It is a welcomed change from the Manning administration who had openly declared war on the construction sector using terms like “in a war, soldiers will fall,” forgetting that sometimes in a war the general can fall, as have happened,” he said.
“We have now hopefully seen the last of Patrick Manning and his strategies and his policies, supported by a bunch of his ministers, that attacked their own people.”
Elias was confident that the Government will support the development of the sector by clearing up the outstanding debt and revisiting projects currently under construction.
President of the Joint Consultative Council (JCC) Winston Riley said he accepted Warner’s remarks in the spirit in which it was intended.
“So far it is a genuine response. How it turns out remains to be seen. I am using a wait-and-see approach but the industry is generally positive about the relationship,” added Riley.
Hart, who has been associated with the local construction sector for close to 50 years, also recalled a strained relationship between contractors and the PNM administration.
“Because it was clear from repeated statements by PM Manning and Minister (Colm) Imbert and other ministers that the government had adopted a policy aimed at destroying the local construction sector,” said Hart, who was honoured with a lifetime award during the function for his contribution to the industry.
Joseph attests: “The relationship between the local construction industry and the previous administration can be best described as deceptive and frustrating,” he said
“The then administration took calculated decisions that were not in the best interest of the industry, after which they then criticised the industry for the negative results of their decisions.”
According to Hart, the PNM’s clear preference for importing foreign contractors at the expense of locals was one of the major grouses in the industry.
The PNM, he claimed, also made a point of paying foreign contractors and not locals.
Hart said the persistent “bad-mouthing” of local contractors by former government ministers not only contributed to the disillusionment within the industry but also damaged the contractors’ reputations in TT and in Caricom.
Joseph presented a more diverse picture of the issues that have affected the industry over the years. He pointed to a general breakdown in operational procedures, including:
— No planning for their development programme.
— No notice of intended development projects to be constructed.
— No allocation /inadequate allocation of resources including financial resources to deliver projects in an efficient and timely manner to the highest standards.
— Failure to properly allocate project risk.
— Failure to give adequate time for responding to requests for proposals.
— Failure to pay contractors in accordance to contract agreement, and in some cases plain failure to pay.
Hart said the scenarios could have been avoided through genuine dialogue.
“But the government never sought to engage the sector in any meaningful dialogue on the problems facing the industry and possible solutions,” he added.
The fact that local contractors were often overlooked because of unsuitability does not hold merit, Hart contends.
He recalled that the findings of the Uff Commission of Enquiry into Udecott and the public construction sector reported that local contractors were the equal of the foreigners.
Hart further claimed that government agencies such as Udecott, NIPDEC and the Housing Development Corporation had managed projects poorly through a lack of understanding of their role and inadequacy of staff.
“That is not to say that inexperienced contractors did not perform badly. Good procurement practice requires that the experience of the contractor should match the needs of the project,” said Hart.
“However, if incompetent managers awarded contracts to the wrong companies and then failed to manage the projects effectively, cost and time overruns are inevitable.”
Education Minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh raised this concern recently when he read the riot act to local contractor Broadway Properties Limited to complete construction of two schools in south Trinidad.
“When contractors don’t get the jobs from Trinidad, they say they are being left out. But perform. And if you are not performing get out of the job. Tell us that you cannot perform...This can’t continue,” an irate Gopeesingh said during a visit to the still to be completed Pleasantville Secondary School.
The school was supposed to have been completed this month, but the deadline has been pushed to August next year.
Gopeesingh announced his intention to ask the Education Facilities Company Limited (EFCL) to review all contracts, insisting there should be a penalty for non-performance.
But Broadway’s project manager Patrick Drakes, said Gopeesingh’s comments were unfortunate as several factors had contributed to the failure to meet the deadline date. As is sometimes the case, Drakes said the scope of work had changed due to unforseen circumstances.
Joseph does not believe many local contractors were overlooked because of inability to perform certain jobs.
“I do not agree with that position at all. If all the parties involved in a contract do their work from the start the issue of shoddy work would never arise at any advance stages of a contract as all contracts have adequate mechanisms to deal with this,” he argued.
Hart feels encouraged by Warner’s insistence in forging closer ties with the construction sector.
“Because this is the very opposite to what his predecessor did,” he said. “However, Mr Warner’s early suggestion that contractors who give something for free, will be favoured by Government for the award of contract, should be rejected because it opens the door to possible corruption.”
Joseph was cautious in his assessment of the minister’s gesture.
“Mr Warner is a politician and I have learnt over the years never to take much comfort in what politicians promise to do,” he said. “What I would say is that I accept what Mr Warner said with caution and look forward to a more meaningful relationship with this new administration.”
On Warner’s suggestion, during his address, that the sector establish a self-regulatory mechanism to govern its affairs, both Hart and Joseph said the matter had been on the drawing board for decades.
“It started receiving attention during the last months of the last administration’s term in office, so we are happy to have the support of Mr Warner to continue the process,” Joseph said.
And, on the issue of corruption within the industry, Hart called on the Government to implement the provisions of the White Paper on the reform of the public sector performance regime as well as the recommendations of the Uff Commission.
“The sector should adopt the mantra ‘Transparency, Accountability and Value for Money,’ whenever public money is being spent,” he added.
Joseph said the only measure that could minimise corruption in the procurement process was the proposed Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Property Bill 2010 “with the JCC”s recommendations and/or amendments.”