AL BARRACK PLAYED his most potent weapon against Government yesterday when he locked out workers from the Warrens Office Complex, which houses at least 15 ministries and ten departments.
Exercising his right as owner, Barrack did it to collect some portion of the more than $50 million owed in rent since Government started occupying the building in 2009. He explained not a cent had been paid for the 146 000 square feet of usable space in the building, the annual rent of which is $10.4 million.
The shock move had the potential of crippling Government’s operations and probably this forced Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler to agree to pay Barrack something.
But the question being asked is whether yesterday’s temporary lockout may prove to be a pyrrhic victory. That is, could his seeming success yesterday prove to be a barrier to him getting a final resolution of this matter which has been ongoing since Barrack was awarded $34.5 million in arbitration in 2006 for his work on the complex, as well as the court costs and the arbitrator’s costs. The Owen Arthur-led administration promptly appealed that judgment, but it was upheld by the High Court in July 2008.
Since coming to office, the Democratic Labour Party Government has moved from calling the judgment “frivolous and vexatious” to making positive statements that Barrack would be paid. However, to date he has not received a cent for the building or a cent in rent for those offices occupied in it.
Certainly a few of the workers temporarily barred from the five-storey complex felt Government should give him back his building and move into Tower 2 and the Baobab Tower a short distance away in either direction.
“How he going to get the money if he don’t have anybody to put in it?” one woman asked.
Minister of Housing Denis Kellman told Barrack that he had Government negotiating under duress by his action when he called the contractor on cellphone around 7 a.m. He later came down to Warrens to personally seek to resolve the matter.
Indeed, the two at one point engaged in a sharp exchange of words on the cellphone which Barrack had on speaker.
In one such spat, Barrack told Kellman: “We was discussing things and you keep spinning me around.”
Kellman retorted: “I do not spin around people.”
A peeved, animated Barrack hit back: “You and Chris [Sinckler] give me [a] hope all the time. Up to last year Christmas you tell me I getting pay . . . . You know what [ticked] me off? When I spoke to you a week ago and you told me that the other Government should have paid me. It is a good thing the Prime Minister [David Thompson] gave me this building and I [went] to the court and had it legalised [or I would be no way now].”
In another episode during his conversation with Kellman, a visibly upset Barrack blurted out: “I didn’t want to do this but I had to do it because you all don’t care if I eat or not. This is all I work for in my entire life. I am almost 80 years old and you playing games with my life. You all messing me up.”
Earlier Barrack told the DAILY NATION team he had had enough of Government’s promises and non-performance and wanted tangible results.
“I am the legal owner of this building . . . and the Government is squatting,” said Barrack, declaring he had had enough.
“When people owe for light, the company comes and cut it off and they have to pay. This is the same thing,” he stated.
The contractor stressed he was not evicting the Government from the building, just exercising his right as a landlord to collect rent arrears.
“This thing has been going on for more than 14 years. That can’t be right. There is no respect for the court’s ruling,” he declared.
For many of the workers waiting for the doors to be unchained, they seemed generally supportive of Barrack’s action, if their lack of complaint was anything to go by. Those openly supportive of him didn’t hide their mouths, only their names.
“The man work for his money and he should be paid,” said a young woman.
“This is the only way he is going to get his money,” said another.
“I hope he don’t unlock the building until he gets his money; that is the only way they are going to take him serious,” stated a middle-aged woman.
Two men standing in a section of the car park said, essentially, that Barrack should have taken the action long ago.
They were some non-committal voices among the workers too, and the statement from one of them best encapsulated their opinion.
“I wish Barrack the best of luck, but I don’t see how a Government who can’t pay its basic bills could find money for him,” a woman said.
All in all though, the atmosphere was relaxed and mirrored the first encounter Barrack had with the Government security personnel he met when he got there. He politely said good morning, identified himself and told them what he was going to do, and asked them if anyone was in the building to let them come out.
The guards and two workers complied and then at 6:22 a.m., he affixed the first chain and lock on the two glass doors. He then went around to the back of the building to do the same thing there.
Within minutes, his personal security guards turned up and they were posted at the front of the building. He then sat down and waited for the repercussions.