Trinidad: a post-fordist social model.

Publié le par jean-paul Revauger

Pr. Jean-Paul Révauger

Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux III, France.




Trinidad: a post-fordist social model.




This paper is based on primary sources and, naturally, secondary sources. Primary sources were collected during two extensive visits and sets of interviews, conducted by the author in 2004 and 2005. The first set included visits to civil servants, official archives and academics at the University of the West Indies at St Augustine. The civil servants interviewed included the Office of the Prime Minister and the Social Services. The second set of interviews was focussed on Trade Unions , research centres and individual researchers linked to the Trade Unions,[1] . The library of the University the West Indies includes both an extensive collection of literature, and primary sources, such as, naturally, the papers of socialist leader CLR James, publications of the Oil Workers Trade Union and the invaluable Living History  collection, in which interviews of prominent “Trinbagonians” by leading academics, collected over the years,  are recorded on audiotape and sometimes transcripted.


Trinidad since Independence: three stages.



Trinidad and Tobago has been an independent state since 1962. The fate of the country’s economy is linked to the price of oil and gas. The country is involved in the production, but also in the transformation of those natural resources. Naturally, the importance of the exploitation of fossil fuels increased significantly after what is known in the developed world as the “first oil shock” of 1973, when the income derived from this activity  increased sharply in oil producing countries. Oil is also politically and socially important in domestic Trinidadian politics, since the oil industry spawned a significant working class, and a vibrant working class movement in tune with the intellectual and political debates taking place within working class movements in the rest of the world, mostly Britain and the USA in the case of English speaking Trinidad. In this sense, Trinidad is different from the rest of the Caribbean, which, with the notable exceptions of Puerto Rico and Jamaica, was never industrialized. It also differs from countries such as Jamaica or Barbados, where unions impacted directly on politics, operating as power bases for politicians, such as the Bustamante Unions of Jamaica, or as the loyal supporters of successful middle class politicians as was the case in Barbados. [2]In Trinidad, Unions remained aloof from government, retained their independence or even directly opposed Prime Minister Eric Williams and his People’s National Movement.  Their influence was not exerted through the medium of accommodation with the powers that be, but through a sometimes robust confrontation with them. [3]

                The economic and social history of Trinidad since independence falls into three stages.

From 1962 to 1973, the state’s budget did not allow much leeway. Frustration was rampant, since the population’s motivation for independence was not primarily political, but social and racial, and based on the unfair distribution of resources, incomes and land. Land ownership, by the 1960’s, might no longer be economically very strategic, in a medium sized industrialized country, where agriculture, including sugar had always been less significant than in other countries of the Caribbean, and tourism never amounted to much. Still, land ownership was an issue in popular mentalities. The fact that the English sugar trust Tate and Lyle still owned 72 000 acres  of land was interpreted, possibly wrongly, as evidence that Eric Williams’s government did not seriously want to challenge the established social and racial hierarchy, as was the persistence of huge differences between the wages of local workers and of white expats in the oil industry. One of the remarkable features of the working class movement, especially in the oil-rich and sugar-rich south west of the country, is the historical alliance between Indian agricultural labourers, who did not own land, lived in poverty, and had no access to educational opportunities on the one hand, and the more highly organized oil workers, who were often of African descent, and whose income far exceeded that of all other workers in Trinidad. This dates back to the days of rabble rousing RAB Butler, in the late 1930’s, but still holds today, to a limited extent. The situation is different in the capital, Port of Spain.

The oil workers had their own axe to grind in the 1960’s. The industry was undergoing three changes: extraction was problematic, since in the good old days of cheap oil, Trinidadian oil fields, mostly offshore, were less profitable than others. Some companies pulled out of Trinidad, selling their assets to competitors, or to the government. They were certainly not prepared to increase wages. Besides, the world over, companies were making extensive use of technological innovations. Indeed, oil was one of the few sectors in which the productivity gains which had so far been the engine, the motive force of the fordist regime could be maintained in the 1960’s, when they were lagging in other sectors. Massive productivity gains implied a reorganization of industry … and lay offs. In a country like Trinidad, losing one’s job as an oil worker meant a very significant loss of income.  Conversely, Trinidad wages being lower that US wages, and because of the relative geographical proximity of Trinidad to the US markets, companies were prepared to invest heavily in oil refinery, and oil related industries. The industry changed, oil workers occupied a strategic position and attempted to obtain better deals. The industrial climate deteriorated, strikes broke out, and were met by two types of responses by Eric Williams’s government. On the one hand, the oil workers union was suspected of communist infiltration. In those post Bay of Pigs days, and given the regional paranoia at the time, this amounted to putting the stakes very high indeed, whatever the merits of the case. Besides, the government attempted to make arbitration and conciliation procedures mandatory, thus exhuming a practice the British authorities had systematically resorted to in the Empire, eg in Australia, but which  their own Trade Unions had always resisted by tooth and nail at home. The climate of industrial relations deteriorated, a feature which bears a strong, even though complex relation with the Black Power crisis of 1970, along with the expulsion of US Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, and the house arrest of Trinidadian socialist agitator CLR James. [4]

                This crisis, triggered by demonstrations of Trinidadian students in Canada, involved persistent demonstrations in Port of Spain, some looting, the use of un-diplomatic language when referring to the US and Canada, widespread agitation in the oil fields, extensive strikes, and a failed pronunciamento by young army officers, fresh from the British military academy at Sandhurst, who shared the country’s impatience and frustration with the slow pace of reforms.

Although the extent of the repression is not documented, oral testimonies of violence abound, but cannot be substantiated.

This crisis, combined with the providential windfall of the 1973 increase in oil prices, opened the second stage of post Independence Trinidad.


From 1973 onwards, the government embarked on a course of reforms based on the nationalisation of part of the oil industry and the distribution of land in the “sugar belt”.

Even, though this was only possible thanks to the oil revenue, this strategy was adopted during the crisis itself, when Williams promised land distribution in order to avoid the mobilization of Indian agricultural labourers in support of “Black Power”.  This second phase is clearly summed up in Eric Williams’s statement “Money is not a problem”, a very satisfactory approach from a philosophical point of view, but one that bankers would probably frown upon. The reforms did not include a relaxation of controls over trade unions. Indeed, a new Industrial Relations Act was drafted, and the Oil Workers Union leaders were repeatedly harassed, arrested, and their premises searched. The Trade Union movement, by the 1970’s was deeply divided along professional but also political lines. Some sectors, such as the sailors and port workers, mostly of African descent, were loyal to the PNM government, which they supported during the crisis, and were paid in return. Others, such as the oil workers, remained fiercely independent. Public service unions were divided between radical organizations, with mostly low paid workers, and less radical ones, organizing higher paid employees and middle management. The latter were more akin to the North American trade union model, and joined the IFFTU.  Whereas Unions had traditionally been organized on the basis of “craft”, in line with British practice, or “industry”, as was sometimes the case  in the US, Trinidadian unions started recruiting members in other trades and professions, thus potentially leading to  rival confederations, divided on political  and tactical lines, as is the case in France, Italy or Spain. This created a lot of ill feelings, since “demarcation disputes” used to be a favourite bone of contention between feuding craft unions.

The industrial nationalizations concerned mostly refinery, not oil extraction, which required state of the art technology. International oil companies had to be placated, and encouraged to invest in Trinidad, which, in spite of its reassuring geographical location, had to compete with other suppliers.  The political significance of the nationalizations of the I970’s, with hindsight, should be qualified, and was probably overplayed at the time. This was especially the case in the US, where Trinidad was often construed as a socialist, statist country, on the way to a command economy of the Soviet or Algerian type. The previous owners were generously compensated. In some cases, companies had pulled out of Trinidad in the I960,s, and were happy to strike a good deal. In this sense, the nationalizations of the 1970’s were more akin to those effected by the post war labour government in Britain than to third world radical nationalist postures, and Williams had more in common with Attlee than with Colonel Nasser or Houari Boumedienne.  Nationalization concerned mostly export led industries, and the day to day life and economic activity of ordinary Trinidadians, who had nothing to do with oil refinery, changed little. What did change, however, was the level of investment in public services, the health system, but especially education, once again possible thanks to the oil revenue. Educational investment is considered as a success, whereas the advances made in the field of health were somewhat annulled in the last stage, that of structural adjustment and retrenchment.

One should probably take a balanced view of this period. On the one hand, Trinidad moved towards a social democratic type of model, with free and universal public services, whose standards, even though imperfect, far exceeded the regional average, a state-led industrial policy, and an independent stance in international affairs, exemplified by its criticism of the controversial US intervention in Grenada in 1983. However, this is only part of the picture. Criticisms emanating from opposition parties and from the Indian community, which constitutes 40 % of the total population, take the authorities to task for distributing the benefits of the new model in a racially biased manner. It would appear that the section of the population which is of African descent, which constitutes the bulk of the PNM’s supporters and members, obtained a disproportional share, in terms of state employment, influence, and even land. Indeed, the current situation in Trinidad would seem to concur with this interpretation. State employment, political power, the armed forces and the police are largely under the control of Trinidadians of African descent, whereas Indians are concentrated in the business sector, either as very successful businessmen, or as extremely poor casual workers. The expansion of State power, in spite of its positive side, has fostered clientelism, and nepotism, in Trinidad as in many third world countries.


This second phase lasted until the mid 1980’s, when an economic, social and political crisis erupted.  The income derived from the exploitation of the oil resources clearly lagged behind public expenditure, a feature which, in other geo political and historical contexts, would have been considered as a minor sin, since the country’s oil reserves were quite significant, leaving aside gas, which is a more recent development. The world over,  1980’s were dominated by the ministrations of experts who had absorbed wholesale the monetarist principles of the Chicago school, for whom public deficit was anathema, except of course for the USA, bent on overspending the Evil Empire in the manufacturing of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The political and social implications of monetarism are well documented. State expenditure was construed by the neo conservatives who ruled the leading economies of the developed world, eg Britain and the USA, as not just inefficient, but conducive to totalitarianism: the State’s inefficiency led it naturally to expand to other sectors of the economy, thus leading the naïve social democrats to a slippery slope, whose arrival point would be a command economy and dictatorship. International organizations, the IMF and the World Bank, absorbed this ideology and preached structural adjustment plans designed not just to curb inflation and reduce public spending, but also reduce the share of public authorities  in the economy, and tip the balance in favour of the private sector in terms of public policies, opportunities for employment and promotion, and wages. This naïve conversion to monetarism had momentous consequences for the whole world.  In Trinidad, this led to a spate of privatizations, to changes in the management of public services, and to changes in the conditions of employment in the wage earning sectors of the economy, both in the public and private sectors. [5]

The relative decline of the state sector had serious consequences, which were felt immediately by the leading party, the PNM, whose popularity among its supporters, mostly of African descent, depended heavily on its ability to reward its clientele. Whereas the party had dominated the scene since independence, and was only challenged by groups associated with the economic elite of the Indian community, but little popular appeal, it lost power within months. State employment and the development of public services were certainly important in political discourse, but personal interest was probably just as central as ideological commitment in the shift of voters. An era of instability opened, and the leading ethnic groups, Blacks and Indians, gradually rallied around their own political parties, today Basdeo Panday’s  UNC and Patrick Manning’s PNM. This situation is rather worrying, given the  need for a young country to promote national identity and  unite its population. When a population is divided on ethnic lines, no “public debate” can take place, and there no such thing as a meaningful “forum” or a “Public Space” as Habermas would have it. This is compounded by the negative example of   nearby Guyana, where the ethnic mix is similar, and which was plagued by civil strife for years. No Trinidadian in their senses would like to go the same way.  The volatility of the political situation was made clear in 1990, when a coup was attempted by a group of radical Muslims of African descent, influenced by American Black Muslims. The democratically elected government was held hostage at gun point for several days, and the authorities’ weakness is made clear by the fact  a compromise was struck, the culprits emerged practically unscathed, and are currently allowed to pursue their goals, happily mixing shady economic activities, such as the running of quarries, and political/religious propaganda.

Public services were seriously affected by the paradigmatic shift. Wages were frozen, and opportunities dwindled. This did not just make state employment less attractive. In the case of health, it led to a decline in standards, and paved the way to the dual system which Trinidad currently operates. In a nutshell, professionals in the public health system  took two jobs, and opened private practices, to which they gradually devoted most of their time. In some cases, it seems some doctors only make a token appearance in the public service, spend very little time with patients in the public system, and , conversely, offer very professional services in the private sector. The state sector thus gradually became a network of basic primary care and local health centres, where waiting lists are very long and queues are the norm, and whoever can afford private treatment will do so. Wage earners, the middle classes, all resort to private services, either paying upfront, or subscribing to private insurance. [6] The structural adjustment plan would be considered as highly successful by the likes of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. It nipped in the bud an emerging public health service, and hatched a private health industry clearly modelled on what social policy experts call the “anglo saxon liberal model”. [7]

During this period, conditions of employment in the wage sector changed dramatically and Trinidad took the shape it currently has. In the prosperous oil and gas related industries, as well as the major strategic sectors such as ports, contracts are now individual. They are no longer the subject of collective bargaining, and the unions, as a result, have seen their influence and membership dwindle. This is a world wide trend, which started in the 1960s in a very modest way, became dominant during the neo conservative 1980’s and is usually identified with the demise of large scale industry, and of the model which it spawned,  i.e. of fordism.  Together with the industrial heritage of the 1940’s and 1950’s, all sorts of practices, ideas, and values went down the drain: industrial policies, state involvement in public services, public provision of free services, collective bargaining between unions, employers, and sometimes the State, collective industrial and political action on the part of the working class, radical critical thinking were part of the collateral damage. The shift from fordism to post fordism steered the world away from the more social democratic models, and towards neo liberal, North American type of practices, at least until the early XXIst century.


Post fordist Trinidad.

The irony about Trinidad, is that it epitomizes all of the features of post fordism, but at the same time, remains a country dominated by a strategic industrial activity, the production, processing  and export of energy. This is not to say that the activities which predated industry, such as agriculture and fishing, are non existent, or that the information technology revolution has bypassed Trinidad. Neither of this would be true. Indeed, governments have consistently tried to improve alimentary sufficiency in TT, and agriculture employs 36 000 people, including 11 000  in the sugar industry.. The sugar and rum sector is therefore small, has always been smaller than in other countries of Caribbean in any case, but it is there. Government and commercial services are staffed by computer literate employees. There is therefore no mechanical relationship between the state of technological development and the prevailing socio-economic model. Models result from political processes as much as from technological evolutions.

Trinidad is clearly integrated in the process of globalization. Indeed, this was, historically, the case for all of the Caribbean in the time of cash crops. The islands were just a place where sugar could be produced, and exported. Trinidad today is totally dominated by oil and gas, which constitute the bulk of its exports, and of the government’s budget.[8] Therefore, the country’s fortunes are dependent on the international price of fossil fuels. Whatever policies a government pursues are determined by outside factors. The meaning of “national independence” is therefore very problematic. This can be construed, by citizens of rich and powerful countries, as a welcome evolution towards “global thinking”, the realization of “interdependence” and the end of petty nationalism. One can also take a different view, and see “interdependence” as “dependence”.

Other features make Trinidad a stop over for post fordist travellers. It is an outpost on the trade route of  drugs, on  their way to the US and Europe from South America. Sadly, since it is close to the areas of production of Columbia, local agents are paid in kind, and peddle their ware on the local market. The cash value of this “trade” is considerable, and destabilizes the whole region. [9]

Finally, Trinbagonians are mobile people. Within the Black African community, educated youngsters leave the country in droves, mostly for Canada. The proportion, according to some sources is as high as 1/3 of the African population. They are replaced by immigrants from the English speaking Caribbean – Grenada, Guyana, St Vincent …- who are usually non qualified. This reduces the impact of educational investment as a tool for development.

Tourism, this typical feature of the post fordist world, is limited to Tobago, and remains relatively uncompetitive.

The structure of the economy and of employment is also typically post fordist. The bulk of the country’s income, and 63% of its exports,  is provided by oil and gas, which employ a very small proportion of the workforce: 20 000 out a workforce of close to 600 000. The rest of the economy functions, but seems in fact marginal in macro economic terms. The dual labour market in the private sector  opposes on the one hand a very small number of well paid oil and gas workers – on individual contracts-  and a vast mass of workers, a lot of them self employed, or employed  on a casual basis without any contract at all. The macro economy prospers while the rest of the country ekes a precarious living. This contradiction between macroeconomic indexes, including the public accounts, and the well being of the population is a typical feature of post fordism: Fordism, for all its faults, at least provided stable full employment, jobs for life and a degree of security. Needless to say Trinidad never enjoyed the benefits of fordism, but switched directly from colonial exploitation, and neglect, to post fordist casual employment, after a brief “statist” interval. 

Its model now includes the familiar combination of safety net social security for the destitute and the casual workers, and private provision for the middle classes. The key political issues, in this respect   seem to be on the one hand improving the quality of public services and regulating the private sector. Widespread reform does not seem to be on the agenda, even in the country where “money is not a problem”.  The dual labour market is therefore reflected in public services, and deeply embedded in TT.


The co existence of  casual employment and modest incomes on the one hand, and very prosperous economic activities on the other  hand, has an incidence on crime. The frustrations of the Black population, whose avenue for employment and promotion in the public sector is now blocked by the new public management objectives, and the ideal of a “lean state” find an outlet in crime. This is made worse by the impact of drugs, the expulsion of well trained criminals of Trinidadian descent from the US, and a series of public corruption scandals involving government ministers which seem to suggest that the great and the good give short shift to the rule of law. The crime rate is high, and crime often assumes a nasty  racial  tinge, especially when  middle class Indians  are abducted by Black gangs, a not infrequent occurrence.

To conclude on a more hopeful note, post fordism is also based on the upskilling of the population, on massive investment in strategic high tech sectors, and on upgrading the educational achievements of the population. In this respect, TT is relatively well placed. Its basic educational system functions, the whole of the country is covered, some publicly maintained secondary schools have a very high reputation, and its university, UWI at Saint Augustine, hosts academics of the highest professional standards, as well as competent and motivated students from the whole region. Besides, the oil industry is currently developing a private technological university, to cater for its needs in specialized technicians and engineers. Turning TT into a training centre for the oil and gas industries is certainly a very attractive prospect, especially if the employment prospects are truly international, and a cultural and civic dimension is included in the syllabus.




TT is indeed a puzzling place. While many individuals display a keen awareness of current international issues, and maintain impressively high standards of intellectual debate, disenfranchised and disorientated populations, seriously affected  by alcohol and drugs are also to be found. Standards of political education and of critical thinking are probably higher than in other comparable countries,  because of the political agitation of the oil workers throughout the last century. Conversely, political life is viewed with a very high degree of cynicism by the population, politicians are not respected, and the standards of public debates  are abysmal. This makes the situation potentially unstable. The ethnic divide is significant, but not absolute, given the proportion of exogamy. The British  bar on cross race relations made little impact in TT, where the Spanish and French influences prevailed well into the 19th century, even under British rule. Neither the Spaniards nor the French had any particular qualms about crossing the racial line when it came to sex. Ethnic division remains, however, one of the key features of the island, despite the naïve multicultural packaging of the carnival and local music, for the sake of tourists and of consumers of “world music”.

 Foreign observers and geo-politicians tend to take a bird’s eye view of Trinidad, and, today,  to look at it through the digital lenses of  intelligence-gathering satellites. This attitude already turned the country into a  strategic hot spot during World War Two, when Nazi submarines attempted to cut the Allies’ oil supply, and lurked in the Gulf of Paria. Today, Trinidad is no doubt seen with mixed feelings by the powers that be. On the one hand, it is only 11 kilometres away from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, and is seen as a haven of common sense, and a potential if grumpy ally of the English speaking world, compared to the fiery  anti imperialist rhetoric of the Latin American Neo Bolivarian populists. On the other hand, it is politically unstable, since the regime barely escaped two coups over the last 36 years, including one by Muslim fundamentalists. All this probably downplays the resilience of society, and the intellectual and emotional resourcefulness of the population, to which political debates do not do justice.

The social model is definitely very specific, and could not be replicated, unless all Prime Ministers of the Caribbean discovered oil and gas in their back gardens. Trinidad is no longer the God-forsaken backwater it remained in the eyes of the British until the 1930’s. Like the rest of us, it is whirling in the vortex of globalization, and is a perfect specimen of this oxymoronic animal, a post fordist, industrialized society. 


[1]This  included the Cipriani Labour College, Vincent Cabrera of NATUC, Kelvin Smith et Chandra Blanche, of the Public Services Association, and former Labour Minister, industrial relations researcher  and current MP, Dr Roodal Moonilal. See: Roodal Moonilal. Changing Labour Relations and the Future of Trade Unions. Thèse. The Hague Institute of Social Studies. 1998.

 Workers’ Protection: the case of Trinidad and Tobago. ILO, Trinidad, 2001

Interview, 22 avril 2005.

[2] Lawrence A. Nurse. Trade Unionism and Industrial Relations in the Commonwealth Caribean. Greenwood Press, 1992

[3]Ron Ramdin. From  Chattel Slave to Wage Earner . A Study of Trade Unionism in Trinidad. Brian & o Keefe 1982. p.13


[4]  Farrukh Dhondy. CLR James. New York, Pantheon Books, 2001

Ken Worcester. CLR James, A Political Biography. Albany, State University of New York Press, 1996.

Antony Bogues. Caliban’s Freedom. The Early Political Thought of CLR James. London, Pluto Press, 1997.


[5] Anne Marie Bissessar, Policy Change in the Health Sector in Trinidad and Tobago. In John Gaffar la Guerre Policy Change Governance and the New Public Management. UWI School of Continuing Studies. 2000

[6]Pr  Karl Theodore    Health Economist. Interview, UWI, Feb. 2004.

[7] Gosta Esping Andersen. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. 1990.

[8]  Oil production is due to reach 165 000 barrels per day in 2006, and gas production  is due to double.  Patrick Manning. Budget Speech. 28 Septembre 2005.

[9] Renuka Voisset : La Caraïbe du Commonwealth et la drogue, une étude géonarcotique. UAG, Schoelcher, 2004.

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