Although our National Anthem proclaims T&T to be a place where “every creed and race finds an equal place,” the realities of life in a plural society present many challenges. For that reason, strong systems are needed to safeguard against all forms of discrimination.
For many years, there had been concerns that legislative and other measures to address grievances about discrimination in employment and other practices were ineffective, so in 1997, during the United National Congress administration led by Basdeo Panday, work began on the establishment of the Equal Opportunity Commission and Tribunal.
Interestingly, just two years after that, Veera Bhajan, who was born without arms, won the admiration of the entire country when she placed among the top 100 students in the Common Entrance exam—the forerunner to the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) Exam—and earned a place in her first-choice school, St Augustine Girls' High School (SAGHS).
It was the first of many accomplishments by Ms Bhajan, who never allowed her physical disability to get in her way as she achieved one success after another.
She was admitted to the bar to practice as an attorney in October 2011.
Her life experiences, academic accomplishments and professional qualifications should have made her a natural fit for the position she sought as a lay assessor with the Equal Opportunity Tribunal. As a court of record chaired by a legal professional with the same status as a High Court Judge, the tribunal has the distinction of being the only anti-discrimination court in the English-speaking Caribbean which, on the face of it, would have been enhanced with the appointment of Ms Bhajan.
However, a High Court ruling this week has exposed some troubling developments, including repeated attempts by the chair of the tribunal, Donna Prowell-Raphael, to block Ms Bhajan from taking up that appointment.
High Court Judge Avason Quinlan-Williams delivered a stinging rebuke to the tribunal and Prowell-Raphael as she ruled that they had acted illegally, even going as far as describing their behaviour as “pure hate and acting normal.”
She ordered them to pay Bhajan's salary and benefits which had been withheld since March, plus interest and $100,000 in damages for the distress and embarrassment they caused her, plus $250,000 in vindicatory damages.
But that is not the end of the matter, since the tribunal is appealing the ruling, describing as “scandalous and unfounded” suggestions of discrimination on the basis of race, disability or hate.
As it now stands, public confidence in the tribunal’s ability to decide complaints of discrimination with fairness and transparency has been severely eroded and a lot of work will have to be done to restore that tarnished image.
It defies logic that the very entity that should be leading the fight against discrimination in all forms, whether it is disability, ethnicity, age or sexual orientation, would argue that Bhajan’s disability made her unsuitable for the job.
It is also hard to imagine the tribunal, as currently constituted, regaining sufficient credibility to continue functioning.
As an entity with a critical role in ending direct and indirect discrimination, as well as extreme forms of discrimination, the tribunal has been found guilty of the very thing it should be working against. This is an untenable situation and the key players in this fiasco must be held accountable.