School builders’ clash boils over

A contractors’ dispute has erupted on the building sites of two government high schools, putting nearly 150 employees out of work, including many Caymanians.

Caymanian labourers

Laid off about three weeks ago, Caymanian labourers are looking to get back to work at Tom Jones.
Photo: Shurna Robbins

The business relationship between the general contractor, Tom Jones International and local subcontractor Moises Construction has broken down to the point that all of the latter’s workers were told to leave the job sites about one month ago.

The sub-contractor’s workers received their last two week’s pay directly from Tom Jones, effectively bypassing Moises Construction, according to Employment Relations director Lonnie Tibbetts.

”We are assessing the situation to see what exactly has happened with the contractors’ dispute and the employees,’ said Mr. Tibbetts. ‘But I haven’t heard anything from any of the workers. In order to assist them to get re-employment, we really need them to come down to register with us.’

‘The proof is in the pudding. And I am scared that this has become a political thing,’ said Mr. Tibbetts.

The contractors dispute does not appear to be about workers’ job performance, explained Mr. Tibbetts.

Several laid-off workers from North Side and Bodden Town showed up at a press conference calling for a full investigation into why laid-off Caymanians have not been hired by the general contractor of the schools.

Most of the laid-off workers said they had put in applications to work for Tom Jones, but they had not heard back. Numerous men from North Side said they have families to support so they are anxious to get back to work.

Starting over in his mid-30s, Avel McLaughlin acknowledged he made some mistakes at his old job at the Immigration department. His carpenter’s helper job at the Clifton Hunter High School job site gave him a chance at a fresh start so he was disappointed when he was laid off.

‘I went out to Tom Jones to apply for a job with them, but they told me they had over 200 applications and they were not accepting any more,’ said Mr. McLaughlin.

‘I have so many applications in out there – the Marine Unit, construction companies, Progressive, hotels, but nobody has called me back.

‘I want to go back to work. I have four kids. And although my wife has a job, she cannot do it all by herself.’

Another laid-off worker from North Side, Ron Gauntlett, 29, was a head carpenter at the Clifton Hunter job site.

‘It has been rough,’ said Mr. Gauntlett. ‘I have six kids to support. To get a little money I do a little fishing and I am a mobile barber. I do what I can.’

Since none of the laid-off Caymanians have registered with the Employment Relations Department, Mr. Tibbetts was unsure exactly how many Caymanians have been put out of work.

But according Moises Construction owner Victor Ramos, there were about 138 to 145 total employees, with 58 being Caymanian.

‘I had good guys working for me,’ said Mr. Ramos. ‘This wasn’t about the quality of their work or their performance because the quality of their work was good.’

Mr. Ramos said that he had to lay off all his workers because the only contracts he had were with Tom Jones. He blames the economic slowdown on not being able to obtain new construction projects to put some of his staff back to work.

Mr. Ramos was reluctant to talk about the details of the contract dispute with Tom Jones or why the business relationship had broken down.

‘At this point, we are waiting to see if we can negotiate. If they don’t want to negotiate, then we are going to court,’ said Mr. Ramos.

Tom Jones president, Hunter Jones stated in an email response to questions: ‘At this time, Tom Jones International has an unsettled dispute with Moises Construction. It is a matter of potential litigation and accordingly we cannot comment.

‘As to the enquiry as to the number of Caymanian workers onsite, Tom Jones can proudly state that we have over 70 per cent Caymanian employees working at the Clifton Hunter site.’

There are no new applications for work permits for new staff added Mr. Jones.

The contracts issued to Tom Jones for the building of the two high schools are worth about $115 million.

Last week, former MLA Ezzard Miller and Walling Whittaker, former Employment Relations director who is seeking to be elected for George Town, held a press conference at the Clifton Hunter High School job site in Frank Sound, calling for an investigation into allegations that Tom Jones was seeking new work permits to replace the jobs held by Caymanians through the subcontractor.

Mr. Tibbetts acknowledged that he had ‘been hearing a lot of stories that Tom Jones was getting work permits, but not hiring Caymanians’.