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Trinidad government shuts down scrap metal industry amid widespread theft

The Trinidad & Tobago government announced a six-month ban on the exportation of old and scrap metals on Monday, even as the Scrap Iron Dealers Association, SIDA, said it was prepared to take legal action against the move.

Attorney General Reginald Armour told a news conference that the government had to deal effectively with what he described as the “wanton assault on national security infrastructure,” as a result of the illegal activities linked to the scrap metal industry.

Accompanied by National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds, Armour said the theft of copper, particularly from telecommunication companies’ equipment, had escalated within the past four months.

“The exportation of old metal is prohibited, except by manufactures licensed by the minister with responsibility for trade to export old material as a bi-product of manufacturing goods or surplus material not required for manufacturing it; old metal and scrap metal are defined in that order,” he told reporters, adding that the government acknowledges the legitimacy of the scrap metal industry.

But he said that the widespread theft was an abuse of the industry in an attempt to convert it into a criminal enterprise and as a result, Cabinet has taken the decision to enact a prohibition order pursuant to Section 44 of the Customs Act to ban the exportation of old metal and scrap metal for six months.

He warned that those violating the order would be subject to fine and imprisonment.

“The law enforcement ability to arrest this challenge needs to be buttressed, reinforced by giving the country a proper regulatory – and by regulatory, I mean legislative and regulatory – framework within which we can bring this crisis under control. The men and women in the street will recognise the scourge that this criminal event has brought upon us,” Armour told reporters.

“We are, on a regular basis, finding that we have no lights in our homes, no cellular access, and our very national security infrastructure in the public utilities is being undermined by the theft of copper, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, which are the blood of our infrastructure that produces electricity and communication,” he said.

He said that a Cabinet subcommittee to review the issue was appointed in early July consisting of Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister and Energy Affairs, Stuart Young; Minister of Trade Paula Gopee-Scoon; Hinds; and himself.

The committee has met with SIDA President Alan Ferguson as well as others in the industry, and has asked for submissions from several businesses critical to the sector.

“The result of that has been quite alarming … as a result of that, the subcommittee reported to the Cabinet that the situation required urgent short-term action, so as to enable the government to bring the crisis under control,” Armour said.

The actions proposed included preparation of a prohibition order as well as amendments to the negative list of the Ministry of Trade, and creation of a regulatory and licensing framework by the Ministry of Trade, in consultation with the Attorney General and Ministry of Finance.

Armour said the order, effected on Friday, August 12, will last until February 2023, but that within three months he would take another submission to the Cabinet regarding the “review and analysis of the current legislation pertaining to the old-metal industry, together with a review of regional and international legislation in that regard, and to make recommendations for amendments to existing regulations and amendments,” he said.

Hinds told reporters that the move to temporarily shut down the scrap metal industry was as a result of the drastic rise in copper theft and related arrests since 2020.

In 2020, there were 58 reports of such activity and 30 persons arrested. In 2021, there were 87 reports and 52 persons arrested. Between January and August 8, there were 162 reports and 136 persons arrested.

“We have cable all over this country, thousands of gates, metal fences. Somebody is obviously buying these bits of material, and somebody is actually selling them. We observed a report in one of the newspapers, where this is referred to as ‘vandalism’. This is not vandalism, it is … serious criminal conduct and it is severely disruptive,” Hinds said

Meanwhile, SIDA President Ferguson has said the association is prepared to take legal action against the move by the government.

“If they close down this industry, we will take them straight to the Privy Council. Any time they touch this industry, the government will have to pay millions of dollars to us,” he said at SIDA’s 13th annual general meeting over the weekend.


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