With more than 500 jobs already having been lost to retrenchment in the wake of what the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) believes is an economic crisis that will grow worse, the leadership of the labour movement says that it is now prepared to join government and the private sector “without precondition” in a bid to create “an alliance of stakeholders” to seek to fashion a collective response to the crisis.
“What we will ask is that the labour movement be taken seriously, that we be treated with respect and that our views be taken account of in the application of responses to the crisis,” GTUC Acting General Secretary Norris Witter told Stabroek Business.
And while the veteran trade unionist gave no indication of any planned initiative to engage government he told Stabroek Business that on the issue of its commitment to being part of “a key stakeholder alliance in these difficult times the GTUC can be taken at its word,” Witter said.
Earlier this week Stabroek Business met with Witter, GTUC President Gillian Burton and Acting Principal Assistant Secretary Dale Beresford following an announcement by Witter that there had already been job losses, particularly in the mining and manufacturing sectors, as shrinking international demand begins to force local companies to reduce their operating costs. Witter named the bauxitemining companies Rusal and Bosai and the furniture manufacturing entity Precision Woodworking as three of the entities that had already sent home employees adding that some Barama workers had had their hours of work reduced.
Meanwhile Burton told Stabroek Business that the GTUC had already begun to reach out to workers in the commercial sector since it felt that the crisis was likely to spread and that their jobs too might eventually be placed on the line. “We are so concerned that we have already begun to approach workers in the non-traditional labour sectors to attempt to look into their interests in the context of the crisis facing them. They are the ones who are very vulnerable and very exposed,” Burton said.
Beresford said that the GTUC was refocusing its orientation to take account “of the broadest possible implications of the crisis including the current concerns of both unionized and non unionized workers over the implications of the ongoing CLICO crisis for their pensions plans.
Meanwhile, Witter, who is also General Secretary of the General Workers Union (GWU), the bargaining agent for workers employed by Banks DIH Ltd, told Stabroek Business that the union was now “more comfortable” since its recent meeting with Banks DIH officials to discuss the fate of the pension scheme for more than 1300 employees. Witter said that the union was provided with evidence that Banks DIH Ltd had been in communication with CLICO and that procedures had been effected to provide assurances with regard to the security of the pension scheme.
And the GTUC executive members told Stabroek Business that the Congress was planning what Beresford described as “a broad-based symposium” to brief workers on the crisis. “We believe that a number of persons may be unaware of the magnitude of the crisis and its implications for themselves and their families. We urgently need to target workers, particularly those non-unionised persons who do not have a voice,” Beresford said.
With less than a quarter of the country’s workforce unionized, all three labour leaders acknowledged that workers in the private sector, particularly, were now particularly vulnerable in their condition of limited representation. Witter said that some level of unemployment in the commercial sector was probably inevitable since “loss of jobs in the manufacturing, mining and other sectors would effectively result in a lowering of consumer demand and a loss of earnings in the commercial sector.”
Meanwhile, Burton told Stabroek Business that the trade union movement continues to be excluded from the national discourse on the global and local economic crisis, a circumstance which she said would eventually redound to the disadvantage of the country as a whole. “From time to time the GTUC is called in by the government to discuss various matters of a non-financial, non-economic nature including the Lusignan and Bartica massacres, domestic violence and issues of national security. What we have not been called in on, and it is quite shocking is the issue of the 2009 budget which the government is only too well aware has deep and serious implications for the workers of the country”, Burton said.
And in response to a question as to whether the GTUC may not have been guilty of inertia associated with its current low-key approach to pushing for engagement with government on critical issues Witter said that it was the GTUC which, in 2002 had taken the initiative to engage the Guyana Government “to the point where we agreed on having institutionalized meetings to address issues of national import.” He said that it was the government, which, “for reasons unknown,” had discontinued those meetings. “We have made efforts to restart those meetings but all of our efforts have been rebuffed by the government”, Witter said.
Meanwhile, all three labour leaders told the Stabroek Business that the shrinking economy, the threat to workers’ jobs and the attendant social consequences made it imperative that the GTUC make clear its preparedness to be part of any “process of national dialogue that includes government” to discuss ways in which the country can respond to the crisis. “Guyana is bigger than the labour movement and it is bigger than the government. This is a time for all of us to demonstrate that our commitment is really to our country rather than to any partisan or sectorial interest. If the government will sit with us in a cordial atmosphere and have open, purposeful and professional discussions with us on natters of national interest then we are certainly prepared to sit with them. That has always been our position,” Witter said. He added “this is a time of national emergency, a time when workers interests are very much at stake and a meeting of minds to determine the way forward should not be conditional on differences of opinion on lesser issues,” Beresford said.
Meanwhile Witter told Stabroek Business that the GTUC is shortly to summon its affiliates to what he described as “a meeting of critical importance” to discuss the implications of the economic situation for the work force. Asked whether the GTUC intended to extend invitations to affiliates of breakaway unions comprising FITUG to participate in the deliberations Witter told Stabroek Business that no such invitations had been extended.
Political and industrial relations watchers are of the view that differences between the government and the GTUC are political in nature and that any meeting of minds between the two will only take place after resolution of the issues that continue to keep breakaway unions, particularly the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) – closely linked to the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) – outside the mainstream labour movement. Witter told Stabroek Business that when the GTUC last met with GAWU and the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE) – the two key unions in the breakaway FITUG alliance – “it was NAACIE who requested a suspension of those discussions”, Witter said. And while no early end appears to be in sight to the crisis that has driven a deep wedge between trade unions Witter told Stabroek Business that he believed, with hindsight, that “too much of our energies had been channelled in the direction of internecine struggle within the movement to the advantage of the political actors and to the disadvantage of the movement and the workers, That has seriously affected our ability to expand the base of the movement,” Witter said.