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Let’s put people first

Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Photo by:Edison Boodoosingh

Since the announcement of Petrotrin’s closure, I have seen several reports discussing the economic and fiscal impact on governments books and the long-term impact on the overall health of the T&T economy.

Also in the news, reports on the processes and intricacies of Petrotrin’s operations and the inefficiencies therein and expressions of great benefits that will come from this lean and mean new enterprise that will rise from the Petrotrin ashes. What I haven’t seen is a report assessing the social impact of this closure on the surrounding communities.

Growing up in the Marabella community, I am acutely aware of just how integral Petrotrin was to my community’s way of life. Petrotrin sponsored much of the sporting and cultural activities in the neighbourhood, maintained sporting grounds, repaired community centres, cleaned rivers and sponsored almost everything imaginable. This shouldn’t come as a surprise but its impact goes deeper than just that. Petrotrin—or one of its many outsourced energy services companies—employed the vast majority of my neighbourhood in some capacity. Almost all of my friends and sporting teammates were employed, or wanted to be employed, by Petrotrin. My father worked at Petrotrin. My grandfather worked at Petrotrin. Even the community lingo revolved around Petrotrin; while playing basketball if you made a shot in someone’s face you would yell “arc eye”—a temporary blindness caused by staring too long at the glare caused by arc welding without protection. At lunchtime, stores and restaurants are filled with patrons in hard hats, protective gear and steel tipped boots. Marabella, in every sense of the word, is an oil town. What will become of it?

Only time will tell what will become of the communities surrounding Petrotrin but the absence of a social impact study is concerning. In the United States, in the aftermath of the collapse of their motor vehicle production industry—which precipitated the closure of plants all over America—several “auto towns” simply receded into a mere shadow of their former glory. Flint, Michigan is a perfect example.

In 1997, in the headwind of dwindling demand for large cars as more Americans switched to sport utility vehicles, mini-vans and pickup trucks, the General Motors Corporation announced that it would close its 2,900-employee car factory in Flint, Michigan, during the third quarter of 1999, with more closures to come.

Flint’s entire domestic economy revolved around these auto plants. This division of General Motors was actually founded in Flint in 1908 and had been building cars there ever since.

After the closing, GM’s vehicle production in Flint was limited to pickup trucks and medium-duty commercial trucks. These closures led to massive layoffs and the community of Flint began to spiral.

Flint, Michigan between 2009 and 2013, some 41.5 per cent of Flint’s residents lived below the poverty line, compared to just 16.8 per cent of the rest of the state. Today, Flint has the ninth-highest rate of violent crime in America with nearly 792 violent crimes reported per 50,000 residents, according to the FBI data. A population of below 99,000, down from a peak of almost 200,000 in 1960.

Not a pretty picture.

With all of the number crunching and analysis taking place, I can only hope that the social impact of this closure on the satellite communities of the Petrotrin refinery is being considered. There should be a sensible safety net programme or replacement projects being considered.

I do not question the economic value of the closure of the Petrotrin refinery; $2 billion in annual loses is significant and simply couldn’t be ignored. All I ask is that we put people first and make the impact on the lives of citizens paramount in making any economic decision.


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