NPC denies poor working conditions at zoo

The National Parks Commis-sion (NPC) has denied poor health and safety practices at the Georgetown Zoo, following recent concerns raised by a zookeeper.

General Manager Yolanda Vasconcellos, at a recent press conference, said that all safety gear and equipment were provided when the zoo was established in the early 1950s. The safety equipment, according to her, was “reinforced” during the early 1990s.

Vasconcellos said that zookeepers have gloves, boots, respirators, overcoats, goggles and other such safety gear at their disposal. She further reported that all zookeepers have done medicals at the Georgetown Public Hospital and are free of all zoonotic diseases.

During earlier visits to the city zoo, Stabroek News had observed zookeepers working without gloves or masks. A zookeeper, speaking on condition of anonymity, had explained that the keepers worked long hours, sometimes all week without a day off, for minimum wages. Zookeepers, the employee had said, were only given a $100 daily risk allowance and were not covered by health or life insurance. They had also pointed out that there was no changing room for the female workers who were forced to change out of doors.

Vasconcellos said, “We believe that the public and private sector can do more to help… Any zoo in the world will never have enough.” She added, “We use what we have in an efficient manner and we take the time to understand why things are the way they are.”

When NPC board members were questioned about the frequency at which safety equipment should be changed, Chairman John Caesar did not commit to an answer. But when informed that this newspaper had observed zookeepers working without the necessary equipment, Caesar said they were probably not using it. Caesar’s statement was supported by Animal Health Supervisor Daniel Donald. Donald subsequently attempted to explain that sometimes a zookeeper would need to handle the animals with their bare hands to get a better “feel.”

Caesar interjected at this point and stated that the NPC would have to investigate the reports of zookeepers working without the necessary safety gear. “We have different hierarchies,” the NPC Chairman said, “and I have a feeling that certain things aren’t happening at certain levels.”

He also stated that currently there is an Occupational Health and Safety committee at the zoo.

Despite the NPC’s contention that safety equipment is available but is not being used by employees, the zookeeper with whom this newspaper spoke maintained that this is not the case;  “I am telling you that the only thing we get is uniform and long boots from these people.”

With reference to the risk allowance, the NPC Chairman said that up to a few years ago they were given only $20 daily. The amount has since been raised to $100. The NPC, Caesar said, will need more funds before it can afford to increase the amount.

The zookeeper who spoke with Stabroek News had explained that they are paid just over $9,000 weekly, but noted that the wages did not upset them as much as the risk allowance and the fact that they had no insurance coverage. Caesar explained that the NPC was looking at getting a group insurance policy for the workers but was expecting staff to contribute. The NPC could not afford to pay the entire premium for the workers, he said, but it was prepared to cover 60 to 70 per cent of it. He further said that earlier this month there were two strikes. The strikes, according to Caesar, were triggered after armed robbers stole the workers’ salaries on April 9. Caesar said that management had suggested to workers that they get ATM cards but workers refused to pay even the $100 charge needed for the service.

Training, Caesar continued, is another area on which the NPC has been moving. He stressed that over the years there has been training for workers and anyone who has reported otherwise “is lying.” The NPC has been trying to regularise its training programmes, so there has not been one for a while, Caesar explained. Workers last benefited from a training course in 2008.

Zookeepers, according to Caesar, are provided with a changing room. The male and female changing rooms are housed under the same structure but are separated from each other. Changing rooms are stocked with antibacterial soap and NPC plans to install a washing machine and dryer so that employees can launder their uniforms after work.

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