Schools projects shut down

Contractor walks off job

Walkoff

A security guard closes the gate to the John Gray High School construction site as a worker leaves on his bicycle Friday morning. Photo: Alan Markoff

Construction on the new John Gray and Clifton Hunter high schools ground to a halt Friday when the general contractor, Tom Jones International, walked off the site.

Unlike a previous walk-off from the John Gray project in late September, this time there was little warning the shut down was coming.

Alan Roffey, chief executive of Caribbean Mechanical (High Schools 2008) Ltd., a major subcontractor on the projects, said he received instructions in writing on Thursday night to shut down the jobs.

‘We finished work as of today,’ he said on Friday, noting that all of his company’s tools, IT equipment and drawings were taken off the job sites.

Tom Jones International had no comment about the walk-off, but a spokesman for the company said a substantial statement would come some time this week.

Minister of Education Rolston Anglin issued a statement last Thursday acknowledging that Tom Jones International had advised the ministry they intended to stop work on the schools ‘based on their belief that the Cayman Islands Government has insufficient funding to complete the projects’.

Mr. Anglin denied that government did not have the funding.

‘As outlined in the 2009-10 budget, government has all the necessary funding to meet our obligations for these projects,’ he said. ‘We have also budgeted contingency funds, in the event that these are necessary to cover any claims made by TJI.’

Mr. Anglin also said all certified payments due to Tom Jones International had been made and that there were no outstanding amounts due.

‘Notwithstanding that all the payments have been made, the government has also been negotiating in good faith with TJI to provide significant additional funding to assist both TJI and its main sub-contractor in making advance payments.’

Mr. Anglin said that as of last Tuesday, it appeared the issues between the two parties had been agreed in principle.

‘We are therefore surprised by TJI’s change in position and its apparent intention to now stop work.’

On Friday, after Tom Jones International walked off the job, Mr. Anglin expressed his disappointment in the situation.

‘Government has been, in my mind, extremely fair in everything we’ve done relating to the schools projects since the May elections,’ he said. ‘I can’t speak to what happened before that.’

Mr. Anglin made it clear the Education Ministry does not agree with the work shutdown.

‘We believe that this is a stoppage outside of the contract, just as we believe the original stoppage was outside of the contract,’ he said. ‘We believe we have fulfilled the letter of the contract. It’s unfortunate what has happened.’

Mr. Anglin said he could not answer a question as to whether the relationship between the government and Tom Jones International had now soured beyond reconciliation.

‘I just want to get these schools built and students and teachers in them,’ he said. ‘But we have contingency plans for any eventuality. We are prepared to move forward and provide secondary education regardless of when the schools are completed.’

Although Mr. Anglin would not say what might happen next, he noted that ‘government is going to protect its legal position under the terms of the contract’.

A hit to the economy

If the projects stay shut down for any length of time, the already struggling Cayman economy will take another hit with hundreds of job layoffs.

Mr. Roffey said about 120 of his 150 employees – 80 per cent of this workforce – were working on the two schools sites and that there wasn’t much else in the way of work.

‘It’s not a very good business plan, but that’s the way it is at the moment,’ he said.

Mr. Roffey said his employees would receive payment for their one-week notice, even though there was little or nothing for them to do this week.

‘I hope it gets worked out; otherwise my lads are looking a very tough Christmas,’ he said.

As Minister of Employment as well as Minister of Education, Mr. Anglin said the government was concerned as anyone about people losing their jobs.

‘The wider concern is protecting the country’s money,’ he said. ‘We can’t acquiesce to a contractor [on the basis of people losing jobs] alone.’

Mr. Anglin said he spoke with many of the major subcontractors last week.

‘They understand government has to protect the interests of the country. We have to look at the greater good. That’s the tough part of being a representative.’

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