Aslim Singh, of the Research Department, Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union in his letter `Lewis’ agenda of disdain for the sugar industry can no longer be hidden’ (KN October 9, 2009) continues the misrepresentation of issue. At all times the issue has been the discriminatory way the Government treats with bauxite vis a vis sugar.
At no time was there any agenda against sugar workers and the development of the sugar industry. The position has always been against the government’s discriminatory policy to bauxite and its favourable policy to sugar. A position GAWU does not want to accept despite the evidence supporting the issue.
In 1988 bauxite workers struck against the income tax deductions rate. This strike resulted in a decision taken by the PNC administration to provide tax free income to workers for all premium hours, that is, for work done in excess of the eight-hour work day, and for Saturdays and Sundays. The sugar workers were not part of the 1988 struggle undertaken by the bauxite workers for tax reduction but the benefit was extended to them. It is not true that tax free benefits were given to sugar workers before 1976 for weekend work performed since no such benefit existed in any industry prior to 1988. The PPP Government took this benefit away from bauxite workers and kept it for sugar workers.
Providing statistical data which does not rebut evidence provided in my letter carried in KN on September 12, 2009 showing the disparity in sugar investment vis a vis disinvestment in bauxite reinforces concerns about union leaders sacrificing the principle of job protection and creation at the alter of political expediency.
There is no backtracking on the source that injected money to save the sugar workers’ pension plan. GuySuCo is owned by the Government of Guyana.
It follows that the injection by GuySuCo into the sugar workers’ pension fund had to have the Government approval. In principle nothing is wrong with any employer trying to ensure its workers receive a pension on retirement. Income in the form of pension on retirement is a principle of the trade union movement and supported by me. The contention here is the policy of the Government to inject money into the sugar industry pension fund to ensure sugar workers receive income on retirement as against the Government policy to do away with the bauxite industry Pension Fund that resulted in the denial of income to bauxite workers on retirement. I have expressed and will continue express disapproval over the brutal manner in which the Government dismantled the bauxite Pension Fund. This Fund was valued more than $2.5 billion. It was the single largest pool of money owned by Africans and was a great source of pride to the bauxite communities.
The position taken that the US$110 million received for the Skeldon expansion is a loan by Government that has to be repaid could have equally been applied to the bauxite industry which needed less than US$20 million for its retooling exercise but was denied the capital by the Government. Rather, the Government sold Linmine for US$1.00 and within three years the new owners sold it for US$46 million. This fact should factor into any discussion/argument advanced in justification of the Government investment in sugar.
Arguing that bauxite received subsidies and as such closure and privatisation was necessary cannot be looked at in isolation of sugar which too has been the beneficiary of subsidies. If the argument is to hold then it can be construed that GAWU is advancing the case for the closure and/or privatisation of sugar.
The closure of any industry results in job loss and if displaced workers cannot guarantee job placement then they will be placed on the breadline and wealth cannot be created for people and country.
As trade unions and unionists it is wrong to support positions based on political loyalty. It is wrong for any union out of political loyalty to support or justify the termination of jobs and income to thousands of bauxite workers or any worker. The time has come for us to stop seeing workers’ issues through the lenses of political leaders and stand up for the principles embodied in universal trade unionism. The workers have elected us to protect their interests and it is a responsibility we must take seriously.