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Massy Group’s Anjeli Narine: Covid will lead to more agitation for change
20/10/2021
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Anjeli Narine
Authors
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John VDLD
John van der Luit-Drummond, Editor

A daughter of two university professors, Anjeli Narine was born on the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago before travelling to California and Barbados for her parents’ academic careers. Before commencing high school, the family returned home to Trinidad and Tobago where Narine, driven by an interest in people’s stories, excelled in history and English literature. How then did she wind up the lead employment counsel to a prominent multi-jurisdictional employer with interests across the Caribbean?

“To be completely honest, I don’t recall wanting to do law growing up,” she replies. “For a little while, I considered being a journalist or a psychologist. I was always interested in people’s stories, learning about their motivations, and how they relate to others. I did well in school and my mother was like, ‘With these grades, you can do law’. At 17-years old, I had no good reason to say that I didn’t want to do law. But I think it worked out well, to the extent that in practice, I listen to people’s stories, find out what they want to achieve, and then use my legal skills to help them achieve those outcomes.”

Upon graduating from the University of the West Indies in 2004, and Hugh Wooding Law School in 2006, Narine worked in private practice until 2014 – first a short stint at global offshore firm Harneys, based on Tortola, BVI, before she moved to a smaller, single principal attorney firm on Trinidad and Tobago. It was at this latter practice that she gained wide-ranging experience in disputes; from insurance claims to personal injury litigation, and corporate litigation to land disputes, as well as employment litigation. “It was a small part of the business, but we did a number of mostly high-level appeals. I was grateful for the experience there as I got to see a wide gamut of matters and that experience did me very well as I moved in-house.”

Narine joined the Caribbean’s Massy Group as a legal advisor in early 2015 for what she calls “practical considerations”. “I had just had my first child, and it had been a difficult pregnancy. I realised very quickly that being in private practice, it was going to be difficult to have time for life. It wasn’t even at that point in time a question of work-life, balance. Life was not even part of the equation,” she laughs. “I mean, I loved what I did, but once I had a child, I realised there needed to be room for life. Moving in-house, I thought I would have a little more flexibility, a bit more control of my time.”

Employment law fundamentally appeals to me; it’s really about understanding what is the basis of treating people fairly, reasonably, being equitable

Admitting she perhaps underestimated the amount of work that she, as one of Massy’s small team of in-house counsel, would still be responsible for, Narine does not for a moment regret her move away from private practice. “There’s still a lot of work that’s very time-sensitive, but I do have more flexibility and relatively more control of my time. Most importantly, I have support from my organisation to make time for family and my wellbeing. So, the move, made on practical considerations, was a really good decision for me.”

What makes Massy a more unique proposition for an employment counsel, when compared to other organisations, is that it is an investment holding and management company with three main investment portfolios: integrated retail, gas products, and motors and machinery. The diversity of work offered by the group was certainly an attractive challenge for Narine, who after almost seven years at the organisation, has risen to the rank of associate general counsel and chief counsel for employment and litigation – responsible for the labour-related issues of the group’s more than 12,000 employees in nearly 60 companies across Caribbean basin, Colombia, and South Florida.

“Before I arrived, there had not been anyone in-house who supported HR and dealt with employment matters. That was handled by the HR specifically – who were very well trained! – and supported by external counsel. But, after my first year here, they decided to designate someone in-house to support HR and I raised my hand for that,” she explains. “Employment law fundamentally appeals to me as a person; it’s really about understanding what is the basis of treating people fairly, reasonably, being equitable, and following due process. So, it ended up being a very good fit.”

Now the point person for Massy’s HR team, Narine provides ongoing training and acts as a sounding board for any urgent employment queries that may arise. “My involvement with HR doesn’t have to be full advice or full involvement,” she explains. “On a day-to-day basis, I am more involved in matters that have the potential to be a dispute, such as grievance and disciplinary matters, and to avoid such issues becoming a dispute, I try to be involved in policymaking. But, everything I’m involved in is always a collaborative, team effort. There’s nothing I can say I was the hero of and could take full credit for.”

Pandemic working

Although initially able to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, Caribbean islands heavily reliant on tourism were among the worst-hit nations by the covid-19 pandemic from an economic perspective. Now, struggling with the surging delta variant, most islands in the region are subject to travel warnings as mainland economies attempt to restrict further infections entering their borders – raising fears that the region’s pandemic recovery will be slower than other regions. 

Despite the economic challenges presented by covid, Massy recorded a $743m after-tax profit for the 2020 financial year, a 21% improvement on 2019’s $613m, while the group recently reported a 36% increase in profit amounting to $500m in the third quarter of its 2021 fiscal year.

Like many other professionals worldwide attempting to keep the wheels of business turning, Narine describes working from home during the pandemic as a challenge. “I wanted a work-life balance, and this is work-life-integration to the extreme; working from home with two young children who are in online school. My kids are four and seven, so they can’t quite grasp, ‘Okay, this is work time; Mommy’s at work’. At the same time, they have needs. I can’t say, ‘Well, okay, it’s lunchtime, but I need to finish this’; I do need to take care of them.”

Fortunately for Narine and other working parents within the group, Massy has been alive to the challenges of remote working. “We’ve received a lot of support from the organisation, which, overall, has been very accommodating. However, the nature of the job is that there are deadlines and work still needs to get done. Things come up, crises arise with very short lead time. So, it’s a constant juggle and a real commitment to not be reactive and being more purposeful with how I use my time.”

There’s going to be great disruptions to the way things have always been done and I think that’s going to be led by employees

Pandemic-related challenges were particularly acute for Massy’s employment law function due to the group’s structure, explains Narine. “As much as we’re a group of companies, we’re in so many different regions, so many different sectors, and there are so many job functions within that that there could not be one group position on how anything was dealt with. And, like other companies across the world, we also had to deal with issues arising from reduced labour needs.”

How to effectively manage workers’ performance, and discipline employees working remotely when necessary, were particular concerns for the group, especially when balanced against the need to protect staff from physical and psychological fatigue – a responsibility Narine, who is also an employment and labour relations committee member of Trinidad and Tobago’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce, believes will become even more important amid changing workplace dynamics. 

“There’s going to be great disruptions to the way things have always been done and I think that’s going to be led by employees. They are going to start advocating more for flexible work, for hybrid work, that works for them. They’re going to start being the ones to drive the use of technology and automation to make their jobs easier so they can work flexibly. They’re going to be the ones coming to the employer and saying, ‘Here’s the solution that is good for the business but is also good for me, my time, and my joy’,” she says. 

“There’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach. We’re going to have a lot more advocacy from employees on how they want to work – at a company, societal, and national level. I see in the UK now, they’re looking at passing a law about a right to work from home. Even in the Caribbean, we’re starting to see many more employees agitating for change because people saw things differently working from home. Employers are going to have to learn how to deal with that while still managing the performance of teams working in different spaces, times, in different ways, while also still adhering to discrimination laws.”

Post-pandemic challenges

The Caribbean Public Health Agency recently reported that the rising prevalence of mental health conditions across the region was a serious public health concern. However, the stigma around mental ill-health remains across the Caribbean region

“There's still a lot of stigma about mental health,” says Narine. “There’s still this mentality of, ‘Oh, that’s crazy’, and nobody wants to be labelled as crazy. Little by little, there are a lot of advocacy groups and organisations that are trying to bring mental health awareness within the organisational space with the hope that it spreads, but we do have a long way to go on these issues and lots of others.

“I’m happy that Massy is very proactive about this. In all our decision-making, we try to act with respect towards our employees, the way we treat employees to act with our group’s values, including love and care, collaboration, honesty and integrity, and responsibility for those in our community.”

Beyond covid, Narine explains that other global employment law issues, specifically diversity and inclusion and sexual harassment, are also trending across Caribbean workplaces. “Most Caribbean countries have some form of equal opportunity legislation and laws that deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. Many companies, like those within the Massy Group, also have policies that deal with these issues. While certainly there may be challenges with individual attitudes to these issues, the laws provide frameworks and mechanisms for changing the behaviour of individuals and, hopefully, will ultimately change the cultural attitudes to these issues. 

“In terms of what can change in the Caribbean, while progress has certainly been made on diversity and inclusion and sexual harassment, there is more that can be done. For example, in Trinidad and Tobago, our equal opportunity legislation does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Also, while in Trinidad and Tobago claims of workplace sexual harassment can be raised to the Equal Opportunity Commission, there may be a need for more robust and specific legislation on this issue. I hope to see more progress being made in the future. I believe that organisations who have a duty to ensure the wellbeing of all their employees have a role to play in advocating for progress on these issues.”

Most valuable work

Beyond the advantages of improved workplace flexibility, Narine particularly enjoys the collaborative aspect of working in-house. “In private practice, you’re doing reactive work. You’re dealing with fires that are already raised. Your work is limited in time and scope. But, in-house, I can see how employment issues tie in with the organisational strategy; how it contributes to the success of the organisation. There is a joy to be had by winning a case in private practice or doing a really good job reviewing contracts, but being part of something bigger than myself, seeing the impact of what I do on the overall success of the organisation, feels great.”

While Narine enjoys the challenges of litigation, her disputes experience has reinforced in her mind the importance of the “front-end” portion of her role. “You get to see all the things that could have been done differently that led up to the point where it become a dispute. That one decision made differently, one statement said differently, could have avoided the whole thing. Employment disputes have such a negative impact on an organisation. It has a negative impact on employee morale as a whole and the individual employees involved. 

“I value whatever I can do on the front end to avoid things blowing up into litigation, whether that is being involved in policymaking, training on disciplinary processes, or just being available to answer a call from someone who says, ‘Can you just read through this letter to make sure it’s okay?’. Anything I can do on the front end, I think is of most value.”

Asked about her proudest career moment to date, Narine replies: “It’s so difficult to pinpoint any one thing, again, because a lot of what I do at the company is a team effort. Overall, I’m proud of the career I have had up to this point and that I’ve been allowed to do a good job, working with great people, while balancing being a parent. I’m proud of that and think I’m very lucky that I enjoy my job.”