Drums crash for C&W

Arrest of union activist adds to telecom giant's Caribbean woes
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The Independent Online
CABLE & WIRELESS, a dominant force in the Caribbean telecommunications market, has become caught up in a bitter row over employee share ownership rights in Trinidad and Tobago.

Two prominent employees of the local telephone company were taken into custody last month after they used the ancient art of drumming to make their demands heard.

The resulting political row is proving acutely embarrassing for the UK- based phone company C&W, which owns 49 per cent of Telecommunication Services of Trinidad and Tobago (TSTT) and is struggling to hang on to its position as the dominant foreign phone company in the English-speaking Caribbean.

C&W made an operating profit of pounds 324m in the region last year, nearly pounds 30m more than it made in the UK. But its earnings are unlikely to remain that strong.

The company is under pressure from local governments - which are concerned that high telephone costs will hold up the development of e-commerce - to end its monopolies in the region.

C&W and the Jamaican government agreed last year to void a 1988 deal that granted C&W a 25-year monopoly with guaranteed annual profits.

A similar agreement with Bermuda, allowing Canadian-owned Telebermuda to offer a competing service, led to a fall in telephone charges of be- tween 35 and 40 per cent, according to a Bermuda government spokesman.

The last thing C&W needs as it fights its rearguard action is the controversial arrest of the president of Trinidad's Communications Workers Union, Lawrence Brown, and its general secretary, Lyle Townsend.

Mr Brown said police woke him at 1am and forced him to leave his 14-year-old daughter alone in the house as his wife was out of the country at the time. Human rights activists, lawyers and opposition leaders in Trinidad have condemned the arrests.

The men were charged with the illegal banging of drums, intimidating a minister and participating in a demonstration without the prior permission of the police.

The protest, outside the home of the public utilities minister, Ganga Singh, was in support of the union's demand for a profit- sharing scheme at TSTT.

The Trinidad government, whose agreement with C&W ends in 2010, plans to sell its 51 per cent stake in TSTT on the stock market, possibly as early as next year.

The workers want some of the shares to use as a retirement fund.

"It's a question of empowerment through profit-sharing," said Mr Brown who, along with Mr Townsend, has been re-leased on bail until 17 December. "So far, we have had 33 meetings with the company but they have yet to respond to our proposal."