Workers operating the gates of the Torani Canal in Berbice, which is said to be important to the Guyana Sugar Corporation’s (GuySuCo) Berbice operation, are threatening to go on strike because of what they described as the “terrible working conditions.”
The Torani Canal, which connects the Berbice River and Canje Creek, has five gates at its head and three gates at the tail. Every day, at different intervals, the gates have to be opened to let in water for GuySuCo’s Berbice estates.
According to the workers, for many years the operation of the gates fell under the Ministry of Agriculture, but about 13 years ago GuySuCo took over management. The workers said the living conditions provided by the corporation are atrocious and the compounds are accident hazards.
“We will strike if nothing happens because all we are getting is promises from GuySuCo and nothing is happening,” said Richardo Harris one of the workers working at the five-gate compound.
Stabroek News made contact with Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Guysuco Paul Bhim for a comment on the issue and he indicated that he had made contact with the manager of the Berbice estate which has responsibility for the canal. He promised to respond after hearing from the manager. Over a week later, no response has been forthcoming.
During recent visits to both locations Stabroek News observed that sections of the compounds were overgrown and the housing facilities provided were inadequate for the workers and their families. At the five-gate location it was noted that the stelling, which is used to access the riverside where the workers and their families are forced to do their washing and take their baths, is in a dilapidated condition and poses a danger to them.
According to Aubrey Harris, who has worked at the five-gate location almost all his life (18 years with Ministry of Agriculture and nine years with GuySuCo), because of the nature of the job workers are forced to live on location. He said at the three-gate compound there is a three-apartment building that houses the three workers and their families, but it is inadequate. While four persons are required to be employed at the compound Harris said only three persons are employed as it is difficult to employ persons owing to the demanding nature of the job.
Over at the five-gate location the two-storey building where the workers live is falling apart. Aubrey Harris explained that because he dedicated most of his life to the job (he gained employment when the father of Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee headed the compound) he never built a home of his own as he lived on location. He said when GuySuCo took over, he was promised that he would have received his full gratuity along with other benefits which he had hoped would have assisted him in building a home. Instead he only receives a pension and is forced to remain on the compound. He lives with his wife and other children, including Rourqueston Harris who is employed at the compound, while two of his other sons live in the two one-bedroom apartments at the bottom. Those sons, Richardo and Regan Harris are both employed at the compound and they have wives and children. They said at one point workers for GuySuCo visited with the intention of repairing the building, as they had done at the three-gate location. However, the dilapidated state of the structure made repairs impossible.
Regan Harris is in charge of the compound and his wife is pregnant and he explained to Stabroek News that it is dangerous for her to use the stelling but they have no alternative.
“There is no bathroom or toilet facilities available and all of this was promise but is just promises, promises,” Richardo Harros told this newspaper during the recent visit.
Sections of the walls of the building used by the 17 occupants are falling apart and while there is another house on the compound it is in no condition for persons to occupy.
The building which houses the engines that operate the gates – the ‘control house’ – is also in a dilapidated state with the windows and other sections broken.
Because of the nature of the job it is compulsory for the workers to be on site 24/7 and because of this they said many persons are not interested in being employed, and this is compounded by the meagre salary, which is often paid late. There are times when the workers get a day off, but two workers must remain on the compound at all times to ensure its smooth operation.
The workers said the corporation has promised time and time again to improve their working conditions, including building living quarters, clearing the compound and giving them higher wages but these promises have not materialized. It was also pointed out that the compound is large and it would be difficult for the three workers and their father to clear it without assistance.
There is a generator on site but fuel is only provided for it to be operated up to 9 pm. There is no fence and because it is a farming area and persons leave their cattle to graze in the savannahs, the workers said the cows have free access to the compound and are further destroying it.
The workers have no transportation and no radio system to make contact with anyone in case of an emergency.
“This canal is very important to the GuySuCo operations and without this the whole system will close down and there would be a flood,” Aubrey Harris said.
Aubrey Harris further described the canal as the “most important irrigation drainage system as they use it to produce crops and reduce flooding.
“I don’t want my children to go through what I went through. We have discussed these issues time and time again at the Rose Hall estate but nothing is being done,” Aubrey Harris said.
– workers threaten to strike
He said whenever one officer makes a promise that officer is removed before anything is delivered and the process has to commence again when a new officer takes over.
In its heyday the compound was well kept; there was a functioning radio system and numerous fruit trees which are all now overgrown.