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REFORM OF PUBLIC BUS COMPANY CONTINUES DESPITE PASSING OF CHAIRMAN

In his speech in Parliament on Tuesday, June 3, 2008 Minister Michael Henry said he was saddened to be addressing the nation at this time.

The Minister was speaking, about developments at the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC), only days after the slaying Mr. Douglas Chambers, chairman of the company’s board of directors. He pointed to the earnestness and determination with which Mr. Chambers took on a very challenging task, on behalf of all tax paying Jamaicans. The nine-month old board was mandated to identify and address the causes of the multi-million dollar losses being experienced at the company; the JUTC had been losing between $140mil and $150mil monthly.

Since its appointment, the board, led by Mr. Chambers was able to identify and take steps to rectify several areas of inefficiency. The company had a workforce of 2,743 persons while there was an average roll-out of some 288 busses from a total fleet of 720. This means there were 9.52 staff members per operational bus; more than twice the international benchmark ratio of 4.5 to 1. With the current redundancies the Minister said the workforce is being trimmed down to 1,600 resulting in a ratio of approximately 5.0 to 1 in terms of personnel to operational buses, even with the number of buses being acquired, refurbished and repaired.

Some of the sources identified as draining the company’s finances had to do with its employees. These included many cases of workers getting paid for doing no work, manipulating overtime - by persons deliberately reporting sick forcing others to be kept on overtime with the proceeds being shared, manipulating the revenues from ticket sales by issuing concessionary $15 tickets to adult passengers and pocketing the difference; and the theft of fuel and equipment such as tyres. These were some of the issues Douglas Chambers sought to deal with and the Minister added that he was so earnest, and “brought such a determined drive to the task that in some ways he came across as being too forceful.”

Minister Henry stated however, that the ‘corruption’ was not an across-the-board phenomenon within the company and extended commendation and appreciation to the many hardworking, efficient and dedicated members of staff who continue to serve the JUTC well. He said “It has been really refreshing to see and learn how some staff members have taken to their task with politeness, skill and a sense of decorum, and this is where we want the company to go as a whole.”

Other areas of concern Chambers tried to address had to do with the wide-scale allocation of routes, to taxi and bus operators within the Kingston Metropolitan Transport Region (KMTR), for which the bus company held exclusive operating licence. His efforts to earn some revenue through the legitimate application of sub-licence fees, met with harsh resistance by both small and large operators and public animosity was openly displayed towards him on several occasions. There were added pressures of, people wanting to supply fuel from undetermined sources to the company at ‘special’ rates under ‘special’ arrangements, unofficial ‘security providers’ etc.

Despite theses issues Douglas Chambers was able to achieve much. The company’s monthly losses decreased to approximately $70 million per month. This was achieved with no increase in fares, a limited fleet of buses, and with skyrocketing fuel prices. The reform continues in his absence with the planned redundancy exercise being implemented at the Ministry of Labour. This involves a total of 481 employees, including some who opted for voluntary redundancy. An additional 65 drivers who had declined to be trained for the single operator programme, were added to the redundancy list after their deadline for reconsidering their decision expired on Wednesday July 3, 2008. The unions representing those employees had requested the time to reconsider the choice they made.

To continue the improvements the Ministry is now looking to make leadership appointments at both the board and management levels within the JUTC. A replacement has to be found for the man who the Transport and Works Minister to paid tribute to for ‘the extreme zeal, integrity and conviction which he brought to the job.’ The JUTC has also been without a president for some time.