Living costs strike threatening sugar –GuySuCo

-workers team to meet PM on Monday

By Shabna Ullah

As Berbice sugar workers continued a cost of living strike yesterday that saw Prime Minister (PM) Samuel Hinds visiting the region, GuySuCo said the viability of the industry is being threatened by the unrest which is not directly related to the corporation.

The PM, who was told by the sugar workers that their incentives should be increased, addressed the workers on the issue of the estimation of their electricity bills. He told them that it is a “rough time,” not only in Guyana and that government is aware of the difficulties they are facing and needs their help in overcoming the rough times.

Angry protestors shouted after they felt Prime Minister Samuel Hinds had not properly addressed their concerns.At the end of his address angry protestors shouted loudly that electricity is not their only problem and that he should have brought other persons to deal with the rising food prices and other issues that are affecting them.

At that stage, Vincent Loncke who said that he is a representative of the workers, took the microphone and remarked that GuySuCo can relieve the suffering by increasing the incentives, prompting loud cheering by the protestors.

Vincent Loncke speaking on behalf of the workers.He pointed out that the “money is not enough to clothe the children and provide them with proper nutritional meals.”

Yesterday, the Guyana Sugar Corporation Inc said that if its employees who are at present on strike at three Berbice estates, over issues not directly related to the corporation, do not return to work immediately it will be in danger of failing to supply its markets.

The corporation in a press release from the office of the Chief Executive, Nick Jackson stated that the action of the workers is harming the reputation of GuySuCo in the international markets.

“We have customers in both the Caribbean and Europe who we have contracted to deliver sugar and if the workers don’t come back to work immediately we will be in danger of failing to supply our markets.”

Workers union representative, Paulton Austin speaking. Prime Minister Sam Hinds is at right.According to GuySuCo, the workers are expected to return immediately to work or “face the potential of serious disciplinary action against them consistent with the collective labour agreements signed with the unions.” Contending that the workers who are on strike at Rosehall, Blairmont and Albion did not follow established grievance procedure, GuySuCo noted that it had no control over the factors which the workers were striking about.
“It is therefore beyond comprehension that workers should harm the very company that is providing them with their living over something to which it has no influence,” the release declared.

The current strike, the release said, further aggravates the labour turnout which is already low as some estates have difficulties in attracting the required workforce on a regular basis. In recent times, the release added, some estates have seen a drop in the average weekly turnout by workers which has been affecting production levels.

Meanwhile, the corporation disclosed that its production target for the first crop has already been reduced from 124,000 tonnes to 108,000 tonnes following the very poor weather at the beginning of the year. “This new target is now in serious danger of not being achieved following the actions of the workers at the majority of the Berbice estates,” the release stated, adding that the loss of production so far is 1,380 tonnes over the three estates and that is equivalent to US$1M or $200M in lost revenue. “This is likely to double if the protest is not brought to a speedy conclusion and production resumed,” the release pointed out.

Respect

Loncke said officials of the National Insurance Scheme and the Guyana Power & Light need to treat the workers with respect and not as though they are aliens as “sugar workers maintain the economy of this country.”

Loncke also requested that a five-member delegation visit the PM’s office to resolve the issues and emphasized that the media must be present so the meeting would be “transparent.” The PM agreed to accommodate them on Monday at 3 pm.

Loncke, who vowed that if the issues are not addressed, the strike would continue, called for charges to be dropped against the protestors who were arrested in Canje on Tuesday. He said too that the sugar workers – who have always struggled – were courageous to highlight the sufferings of all the people.

The workers are expected to appear at the New Amsterdam Magistrate’s Court today to answer charges.

On Tuesday some of the workers were marching from their homes at Betsy Gound, Goed Bananen Land and Adelphi to stage a protest in front of the Rose Hall Estate when police blocked the bridge at Adelphi and prevented them from going farther.

Police said in a press release that nine persons were arrested “during an unlawful procession conducted by about 150 residents mainly from Canje, Berbice.” The release said no permission was given for the march which commenced at around 5:30 am from Betsy Ground, Canje along the main public road.

The police subsequently stopped the protestors at Adelphi and informed them that the procession was unlawful and that they should desist and disperse. However, they refused and proceeded to block the roadway, preventing vehicles from passing, and began to make abusive remarks to the police ranks, the release said.

Selling power

Representative of the workers union, Paulton Austin remarked that the Skeldon Sugar Modernization Plant would be “selling power to the national grid and I want to know how we would benefit. Workers should get a cut in the light bill.”

A female worker whose husband was locked up complained that the police made abusive remarks to her and the PM promised that disciplinary action would be taken against the ranks while acknowledging that some persons have behaved badly also.

He also said government would continue the effort to make sugar viable, noting that the world is changing and that persons “have to adjust to what is happening.”

Hinds told the workers that government “sympathizes” with them and with regard to the NIS he admitted that they have not been keeping proper records.

The protest against the rise in food prices started on Tuesday with sugar workers of the Rose Hall and Providence estates marching through the streets of New Amsterdam before picketing the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) office and the Guyana Power & Light Incorporated (GPL).

The protestors assembled at Tacama turn, East Berbice at around 7 am, bearing placards with the words “starvation in Berbice,” “high cost of living” and “reduce the bills” and proceeded along Main Street.

They then made their way along Strand, NA, stopping briefly at the GPL office, shouting “GPL has to go.” They also demanded a reduction in “tariffs and units” and argued that the charges were hiked “for no reason.”

They then assembled at the NIS office where they aired their grievances loudly about a proposal to raise the pensionable age from 60 to 65. The workers also shouted that they are dissatisfied with the way the NIS has been handling their claims.

A worker commented yesterday, “We produce rice in Guyana and yet they selling the last quality to us so expensive.” They also called on Minister of Health, Dr. Leslie Ramsammy to retract a statement carried in the Kaieteur News that Guyanese are eating too much.

“Some people barely getting enough to eat; how they gon eat too much when they don’t earn much.” The minister said he was misinterpreted and that what he actually said was that “Guyanese eat and drink too much of all the wrong things.” He urged the media to report properly what he said.

The protestors who assembled in front of PPP headquarters in New Amsterdam on Wednesday said they chose to go there “because we want them [government officials] to come here and answer some of we questions.”

They said the officials had planned to speak to them at the Overwinning Primary School yesterday afternoon but they refused to go there.
“We want them to come here and address the issue of price control, GPL and NIS. We won’t get a chance to talk at the school. We want to talk to them in the public…”

Workers of Blairmont joined their colleagues in the strike on Wednesday but they did not take to the streets while those of Albion supported the strike yesterday.

The prime minister along with Dr. Ramsammy, Regional Chairman, Zulfikar Mustapha, Chief Executive Officers of the GPL, Bharat Dindial and the Guyana Water Inc., Karan Singh also held meetings at Edinburgh, East Berbice, Canje and Tain on the Corentyne.

Hinds encouraged residents to start planting rice and other crops to help stabilize the economy. He said the water complaints were linked to the electricity service and stated that since mid last year a lack of generation capacity had caused constant blackouts…
Dindial said they have pro-rated the February bill but it can be readjusted. He promised to deal with each issue personally and that customers who had overpaid, would have the money credited to their March bills.

In response to allegations to GPL employees disregarded receipts because they had a disconnection list, he said that would be investigated and urged consumers to report issues so they can be resolved.

Mechanization

GuySuCo also observed in its statement that in terms of recent investments the industry has recently invested US$180M in a new factory and estate expansion at Skeldon which is due for commissioning early in the second crop this year. And there has been significant spending in agriculture to buy mechanical cane loaders, carry out land conversion to facilitate mechanized operations as well as factory improvements across the industry.

This additional investment has totalled $3B over the past two years and GuySuCo may now have to consider investing more resources to accelerate its capital investment to mechanize the industry in order to address general labour in the sector.

According to the corporation, the workers have ignored and blatantly disregarded the established grievance procedure which requires them to follow due process before proceeding on strike, leaving burnt canes in the fields and punts full in dock unable to be crushed, further adding to the losses of the industry. “This type of action will affect the company’s ability to guarantee employment opportunities.”

The corporation said further that the actions by the workers were “irresponsible”, and did not help GuySuCo to adjust to the price cuts from the EU when a further cut will be felt in October this year and the full impact in October next year while the annual loss in revenue to the industry will be in excess of $8Bn. In fact, GuySuCo maintained that the workers were putting at risk the long-term future of the corporation.

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