Brewing controversy at Tonga Power Limited could light a bigger fire

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ACEO Steven Esau, Sosefina, PM Pohiva & Seinimili Tuionetoa, Chairman of the Board, Dr Eke

By Kalafi Moala

 

Nuku’alofa, Tonga – The dismissal of employees and controversy that have broken out at Tonga Power Limited could bring untold damage to the reputation of Tonga’s power supply monopoly and may seriously affect its financial and human resource development. With the Prime Minister as head of Public Enterprises, there is also probable concern by Government as to how these latest problems at TPL will affect the financial stability of one of Tonga’s most profitable enterprises.

On the one hand, there is starting to be a public outcry as news of the problems are leaking out. There are issues of unjust treatment of employees being raised; also issues of nepotism, bullying, and employee harassment being reported.

The new Board of Directors, appointed only last month, and headed by Chairman Dr. ‘Aisake Eke, have their hands full trying to sort out the staff fallout and worker grievance that have been rumored, and that may possibly lead to a worker strike. That was proven to be only a rumor. No strike was planned. However, it cannot be denied there is low morale at TPL, and the new Board have had their first major accusation against them. They are accused that they do not listen to complaints by workers, prompting a petition letter expressing employee grievance being sent to the Prime Minister, who is also the Minister of Public Enterprises.

In an interview with the Kakalu newspaper, Chairman Eke denounced the alleged action by the aggrieved employees. He stated that if the employees had come to the Board first, they could have solved the problem in-house. “But they went to the Prime Minister instead,” he told the newspaper.

Dr. Eke’s media statements contradicted the complaint from workers that they were not given a fair hearing by the Board, and they only petitioned the Prime Minister as head of MPE because of the Board’s refusal to give them a hearing.

But at the center of the Tonga Power Limited controversy is a major scandal involving a married woman alleged to have had sex with someone, not her husband, at the office facility of TPL. There are allegations the same woman have had more than one sexual partner. Some of the sexual activities have also been seen by witnesses who “walked in on it” and who are willing to testify to the serious misconduct carried out at the TPL facility by one of its employees.

Mrs. Sosefina Maileseni, a married mother of four, was dismissed by the outgoing Board for her misconduct, but she is now back and re-employed by the public enterprise. This move by the Board of Directors has raised questions and created widespread grievance among most of TPL’s 258 employees. But the Board is said to have turned a deaf ear to the voice of concern from employees.

Stories told at TPL about the gross sexual behavior of Sosefina have spread like wildfire, and yet many workers at TPL have been afraid to talk to outsiders about the problems because of repercussions that may affect their job. Without question there were many employees who wanted to sign the petition but held off by fear of losing their job.

Sosefina is also alleged to have been involved in spreading false information among workers at TPL, giving counter accusations against other staff for misconduct and inappropriate behavior. This has obviously caused conflicts and less than amicable relationships among some staff.

It is confirmed however that Sosefina’s employment was legally terminated by the old Board and “it was consistent with her employment contract.” It was not a suspension. She was dismissed.

But her re-employment has become a major issue and a bone of contention, particularly when it is so clearly stated in the Staff Manual which employees must sign as part of their employment contract, that there are those with “gross misconduct” who are barred from re-employment.

“Former staff members who left the company in good standing and were classified as eligible be considered for re-employment” (Section 9:3), but in Section 9:4, those who are barred from re-employment are those with “Gross misconduct… will be ineligible for re-employment.”

The re-employment of Sosefina is one of the key issues addressed in the petition letter to the Prime Minister. But for one reason or another, the Board has acted favorably toward Sosefina, not only in re-employing her, but obviously giving ear to her concerns.

Dr. ‘Aisake Eke, as Board Chairman, in response to questions asked by this reporter concerning the Sosefina issue and her re-employment said: “The case regarding Fina was considered by the Board and then, based on its findings, made the decision to reinstate her. Similar conclusion reached by the Ombudsman after considering Sosefina’s complaint against TPL for her unlawful dismissal and, also the response from TPL management about her case including the information you have mentioned.”

This is an interesting answer from the Chairman of the Board. “Based on its findings, (the Board) made the decision to reinstate her.” What findings? Obviously, the findings may not have counted the explicit sexual activities at TPL something worth the discipline, which the old Board carried out. The Ombudsman reached the same conclusion as the new Board. Sosefina complained her dismissal was unlawful. And so she is back re-employed at TPL causing quite a commotion.

And it is not surprising that the Board is leaning more toward support of the woman who is at the center of the TPL scandal, yet averse to the attempt by many of the employees to have their voices heard. Two of the prominent members of the Board are mentioned and complained about in the petition letter to the Prime Minister. ‘Ipolito Lasalo, Deputy Chair, and Senimili Tu’i’onetoa Fonua, a controversial person of interest with accusations of nepotism as basis for her appointment, as she is the niece of Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa.

Mrs. Senimili, a qualified lawyer, is also alleged to have posted unruly comments on Facebook that contributed to fueling the fire of conflict at TPL. She allegedly posted a string of comments in Tongan, just before the four employees were suspended, which says rather mockingly: “The tube which has been sucking life out will soon be removed” intimating that those to be suspended would cease “their sucking the cash cow of TPL.” On another post, she mocks the dismissed employees that soon they will be crying “crocodile tears.”

But Dr. ‘Aisake Eke said that “Senimili refutes that she has posted any matter on Facebook in her capacity as the member of the Board in connection with TPL issues.”  Board members are well aware, according to the Chairman, of their critical position and roles and not to make any action or response that might undermine the integrity of the Board and TPL.

While Sosefina has been re-employed, the Board ordered the leave of absence of four of TPL’s top employees, starting with Acting CEO and General Manager of Finance, Steven ‘Esau. It was a leave with pay while investigations are carried out. Other staff put on paid leave are Ma’ata Mone ‘Aho, an accountant who is Financial Controller; ‘Elisiva ‘Ahota’e’iloa, Procurement Manager/Project Accountant; and Tupou Kolokihakaufisi, from Human Resources.

It is interesting that when Sosefina was re-employed, she was reported to have been placed in Finance, a post and a division she lacks the qualification for.

The Board has put blame on the wide spread of dissatisfaction of employees on the four suspended employees. They were accused of instigating a strike among the employees. This accusation has not only proven false but was maliciously spread by those who were “close to the Board.”

The other unfounded allegation was that these four employees were threatening to shut down the electricity supply of the country, thus causing a major national security concern. The Police were even engaged by the Board in their investigation of the four suspended employees and others.

Asked whether there was a plan to shut down the power supply, one of the four suspended employees said: “This is a lie and an attack on my integrity. I am an accountant and I would not know how to turn off the power supply.”

But those suspended have been warned by the Board “not to talk to anybody except their lawyer.” This untoward intimidation has brought the greatest concern to the misuse of authority and the suppressive methods carried out at TPL by the new Board. Fear has been used to intimidate anyone who may speak out on any issue, and who my express views different from that of the Board of Directors.

In addition to Chair Dr. ‘Aisake Eke, the Board includes ‘Ipolito Lasalo as Deputy Chair, Seinimili Tu’i’onetoa Fonua, Lord Lasike, ‘Isileli Pulu, and John Paul Chapman.

Dr. Eke in answer to questions raised by this reporter, engaged diplomacy in an answer that offered little specific information: “We are following the due process in taking action relating to their suspension and employment. We hope to solve this matter as soon as possible to get it out of the way so that we can all focus with TPL management and employees to deliver our service to the public and other stakeholders efficiently and effectively.”

Performance at a place of business can be seriously affected by the kind of social upheaval taking place among workers, and especially if there are issues of moral impropriety involved, and uncontrollable accusations flying off the cuff. But without question the truth is being uncovered and the reasons behind a lot of things happening at TPL can be squarely based on Board decisions, both the good and the bad.

Questions are still unanswered as to “why” the Acting CEO and General Finance Manager, Steven ‘Esau, seemed to have been the main target of a witch hunt that has fallen flat with no evidence whatsoever? Is there a political agenda behind some of the things being done? And the other three staff members; why them?

TPL was started in 2009, and since then over $28 million pa’anga has been paid to Government in dividends and taxes. Pre-Covid 19 dividend payments averaged between $2-$3 million a year, until Government held back the power tariff over the last two years. Last year the dividend paid out was $1.9 million.

Board members are paid $10,000-$12,000 per company. Tonga Gas is also a subsidiary of TPL. It is one of Tonga’s most important businesses, and service to the people.

The performance and management of TPL seems to be well, but the eruption of the problems of recent days may put a dent into its well-oiled management machinery. The hope is that the impropriety of one person will not in anyway derail the good things that have been going on at Tonga Power for the last 11 years. With a new Board in charge, who is to say what to expect?

2 COMMENTS

  1. I met ‘Esau when he was a CEO a few years back. I may be wrong about the position. But the point is that I find him a very good, respectable and professional person. I received good professional advice from him with good direction of who to talk to regarding the help I seek.
    On the other hand, one member of the new Board was involved in a highly controversial issue at this board before. Why reappointed to same Board she was dismissed from in recent past is not a good work practise in my personal opinion.
    The person in this controversial dismissal for gross misconduct may have legal technicality about the dismissal. But that alone against a misconduct issue do not warrant a reappointment to the same industry and department. Maybe somewhere else and a Vance for a new beginning and discipline.
    A little bit of commonsense at all level may have averted a problem of this kind.There are two members of the new Board with businesses of their own, Puloka and Chapmen. It is worth asking them what would they have done in a situation like that.
    This is not Politics people, this is Problem Solving. Ofa atu.

  2. Thank you Professor Huakau for your comment. Yes, simple common sense needs to be applied here. PM Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa appointed his niece, Seinimili Tu’ionetoa Fonua, to the EC Board and she ended up in court with the Chairman at the time, Paula Tupou. She was also a clerk at Parliament and left there after writing a well politicized letter of resignation attacking Lord Tuivakano as the Speaker. Lord Tuivakano wrote a media press release to counter her allegations, and made it known he would advise her new employer to be cautious of her behavior. Here we are again with the same people causing unnecessary controversy all because of nepotism and feeling entitled to abuse their authority.

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