Poor mobilization eroding influence of unions

By Mark McGowan

The poor organization of workers and the fact that too few of them belong to trade unions are undermining the influence and effectiveness of a labour movement that must play a more meaningful role in nation building, Speaker of the National Assembly Ralph Ramkarran warned yesterday.

Delivering the feature address at the opening session of the Third Delegates’ Conference of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG), Ramkarran said it is necessary that trade unions change in keeping with the changes in the world. “It is important to recognize that Guyana’s workers are woefully under organized,” he said, adding that too few are members of trade unions. “This is a serious deficiency and does nothing to enhance the influence and effectiveness of the trade union movement,” he added.

Emphasizing that the country needs investments, Ramkarran said that “trade unions must assist in creating an environment in Guyana which is conducive to attracting investment and increasing productivity.”  He explained to the sizeable audience gathered at the Umana Yana that this  needed to go beyond just issuing press statements but the forging of integral partnerships between employers and employees. “I am suggesting the integral partnership between employer and employee, through their respective bodies, either centrally or locally, to work out and implement…active and creative measures which would accomplish these objectives.”  According to him, this was consistent with the protection and promotion of workers’ rights and should not hamper trade unions in their fight for higher pay and better conditions for workers. “Trade unions must be seen as an integral part of, and playing a creative role in the development process, without diluting their primary function,” he contended.

Ramkarran also urged the body to participate meaningfully in the debate on national economic and social policies using the opportunities provided by the Parliament.  He said that the various parliamentary committees provided FITUG with an avenue to express its opinions on such matters and “to improve upon its influence.”  He noted while the body could achieve this through the Economic Services and Social Services committees, there was no reason why it should not be interested in the Committee on Foreign Relations.

Since 1992 successive PPP/C administrations “have given unprecedented emphasis to the interests of the trade union movement and the working people of Guyana” Ramkarran said. “The last two administrations of President [Bharrat] Jagdeo have, under his leadership, demonstrated a commitment to the welfare of workers, youth, women and the disadvantaged that has not been shown in any ten year period in the history of Guyana,” he stated. He also pointed to legislation passed in the National Assembly, such as the Trade Union Recognition Act, the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act as transforming the face of guaranteed workers’ rights in Guyana.

President of FITUG Carvil Duncan said it was open to partnership with other bodies. “We have opened our arms and we welcome anyone, any trade union that is so desirous to become a member of this strong and vibrant federation,” he said.

According to him, FITUG has been staunchly defending the rights of workers while speaking out on other societal issues.  “FITUG does not look at things one-sided. Anything that is wrong in this society, FITUG comes out and speaks about it,” Duncan said.  He said that during the period in question, FITUG has produced 35 releases covering almost all the major issues that have appeared in the public domain.

He said too that education of workers remains a priority of FITUG but stated his disapproval that this role is being taken away from them.  He said it is “bad” that seminars aimed at educating workers are now being run by state agencies when they ought to be conducted by trade unions.

Meanwhile, Duncan said that special emphasis will be placed on training women in the trade union movement and about promoting their development, since they have an important role to play.

He said too that FITUG intends to form a youth arm in an attempt to groom young leaders. “In the past there were those trade unionists who believed that whether they are geriatrics or not that they ought to hold on to positions until the time comes when we sing ‘Abide with me.’ But those days have gone,” he said.

Duncan also expressed concern at the deplorable state of Georgetown and the manner in which City Hall is being run.  “FITUG has great concern with the state of our city,” he said, noting that the city was extremely dirty. He said that the workers are almost always being paid late, even as Mayor Hamilton Green continued to make trips overseas.

He said that if those in charge are not able to perform the job adequately, “the best thing for them to do is to step down in decency and say ‘I resign’,” which resulted in the audience applauding. He called on the government to put some mechanism in place to improve the situation.

Also addressing the gathering was Prime Minister Sam Hinds, who said the conference is being held at an “interesting time,” when the world is battling with challenging issues that may require critical changes. He identified the impact of climate change and rising prices as some of the challenges. He alluded to the global financial crisis and said that it had resulted in mostly “hardships for the working people.”

Hinds said that there were several ideas being posited about the trade union movement in Guyana, particularly when compared to the past when the country was ruled by the British. He acknowledged that arguments of some who say the positions that were taken before hand in the fight for independence is not compatible with the positions that are taken after.

Further, Hinds said that satisfaction at the work place is as important as the pay.  He opined that sometimes the posture taken by unions takes away from the worker’s satisfaction at the work place.

Meanwhile, Komal Chand, the chairman of yesterday’s proceedings, said that while the capitalist system is experiencing one of its worst crises, the working class is suffering and bosses continue to reap great financial rewards. He noted that in some countries the wages of workers had been reduced.  “We are already receiving low earnings and as such we cannot have any cut back,” Chand said in reference to Guyana.

Chand, who is the First Vice President of FITUG, also urged all workers to join a union as a means of protection.  “If the union is not strong, you the rank and file have to make it strong,” he said.

FITUG is the umbrella organization for several of the trade unions in the country.  Its affiliate members are the Guyana Agricultural & General Workers Union (GAWU), the Guyana Labour Union (GLU), the Clerical and Commercial Workers Union (CCWU) and the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial & Industrial Employees (NAACIE). FITUG represents about 35,000 workers in the country.

The Delegates’ Conference is a biennial affair at which the Federation’s Executive Council is elected and general and financial reports are discussed and adopted by the membership.  The theme of the Conference was “United Representation to Achieve Social and Economic Progress.”

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