Foreign investment and the future of the labour movement

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the expression of concern proffered by the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) in response to the reported exclusion of Guyanese labour from the construction phase of the Marriott Hotel project. Jobs for the building sector were an anticipated concomitant of the start of this phase of the project, never mind the fact that Mr. Winston Brassington has cited what he says are  considerations of cost, productivity and skills deficiencies as reasons for the recruitment of an all- Chinese workforce. There is an oddness about Mr. Brassington’s  pronouncement that only adds to the controversies  that have long attached themselves to the Marriott project.

Apart from those reasons given by Mr. Brassington for excluding Guyanese from the construction phase, one might add that an all-Chinese work force affords the Shanghai Construction Inc, the firm contracted to build the hotel greater ‘flexibility’ in managing its workforce since it will probably have to worry less about stringent adherence to the local labour laws.

Whether or not the GTUC can take its concern over the exclusion of Guyanese workers to the level of an effective public protest is doubtful. Labour’s almost complete loss of what was once a much-vaunted constituency almost certainly precludes that eventuality.

That loss of influence is, in part, a function of the labour movement’s proclivity for self- destruction. Currently, all but a handful of local trade unions are afflicted by shockingly low membership; meanwhile,  the remnants of an aging and out of step labour leadership appear to have shifted their attention to alternative pursuits that include public advocacy on sundry social and political issues. These days the GTUC exists virtually in name only, its title serving as a convenient if still sufficiently respectable cover for various non-labour causes.

The Marriott issue aside, the GTUC would do well to abandon its wandering ways and focus its attention on the opportunities and the challenges that may well lie ahead for the labour movement. In this regard, it would be in labour’s interest to focus far more attention on those potentially significant evolving foreign investments in the country’s  gold and forestry (value-added) sectors which appear to offer prospects for significant recruitment of local labour and concomitant opportunities for unionization of workers. Two such foreign investments, the Canadian gold mining company Guyana Goldfields and the Chinese company Bai Shan Lin, have already announced their intention to recruit several hundred workers locally. Guyana Goldfields has already announced its intention to accommodate the unionization of its workforce So far, Bai Shan Lin has only committed to the local recruitment of a personnel relations supremo to relate to the workers. Those are issues in which local trade unions may wish to take an interest. In sum, the challenges that lie ahead for the GTUC include lobbying vigorously for the unionization of workers recruited by foreign investment groups and (at the level of individual trade unions) creating effective bargaining units for those workers.

Whether or not labour, at least in its current seriously depleted state, can accomplish these goals is doubtful. That does not mean that the circumstances do not present an outstanding opportunity for the movement to restore some of its long lost influence.

If it appears that the  GTUC may be unable to bring about corrective measures by causing Guyanese construction workers to be included in this phase of the Marriott project (the government is unlikely to intervene to change the status quo) its current focus ought to be on those opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. Strange as it may seem the proliferation of foreign private investment in Guyana could provide the best opportunity yet for the labour movement to re-invent itself.

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