President Bharrat Jagdeo yesterday declared that Barama Company Limited has “another think coming” if it is the company’s intention not to restart plywood operations here, following the laying off its 274 Land of Canaan workers.
The workers were made redundant following damage to a boiler at the company’s East Bank Demerara location in early October.
Jagdeo made the statement at a meeting with the workers, where he announced a three-month assistance package for them, in keeping with a pledge he made last week. Jagdeo said he was not satisfied that the company is doing all it can to get its boilers operational again and he has asked his officials to do an independent investigation since they were unhappy with the timetable for resumption presented by the company. “It seems as though it’s a shifting timetable that’s gone from 12 months now to 20 months and we have a sneaking suspicion that there’s no sense of urgency to resume operations. But let me make it clear, let me make it extremely clear, that if Barama thinks that they will just be cutting wood in Guyana and exporting that wood and not resume the plywood operations they have another think coming,” he declared.
Jagdeo said once he receives the report from the Minister of Agriculture he will invite the company for some “serious discussions” and if he is still dissatisfied with their efforts to resume operations in the “near term” government actions will follow.
“They’ve enjoyed tremendous concessions from this country and from the Treasury, duty-free concessions, tax holidays all; largely because we wanted the employment of our people and, if there is not this large-scale employment, I don’t see any justification for continuing any of those preferences,” the President stated.
The import duty on plywood has since been removed, Jagdeo said, because of a shortage and some dealers looking to profit from the situation.
“You have some unscrupulous people who have moved the price from $4,500 per sheet now to $9,500. So we’ll have to import and I’ve said to my Cabinet we’ll remove the taxes for the period whilst we’re not producing, when we start producing we’ll put back the taxes on imported plywood so that local plywood will have a preference.”
The President suggested that Minister of Trade Manniram Prashad examine the matter through the Competitions Commission.
Meanwhile, Jagdeo disclosed that the laid-off Barama workers will have the opportunity to pursue computer classes and receive a $25,000 stipend for the next three months but said it was not “free money” since they would have to enter a “deal. In exchange, you’d all have to go one day per week to learn computers. Every single person, those who can read and write and those who can’t read and write. If you can’t read and write we’ll teach you but I want everyone to learn computer skills,” Jagdeo told the workers.
He said that only those who go to the classes will receive the stipend at month end and declared that age was no excuse. He said it was hoped there would be greater clarity from Barama at the end of the three months and that some of the workers would be employed. The President added that they were also trying to source jobs for the workers both in the private and public sectors and he mentioned possibilities under the Forest Producers Association and GuySuCo.
Jagdeo also used the opportunity to sell his ICT vision with the One Laptop Per Family initiative and having all Guyanese computer literate as a way to spur job creation. “We think we can generate tens of thousands of jobs. Already, this is happening in the ICT sector so that a lot of people who now work in factories can work with a computer and they earn quite a large sum of money compared to the pay checques I’ve seen you receive,” he said.
The Linden Technical Institute will be one of the centres at which the computer classes will be taught since almost 100 of the laid off workers are from that town and another one will be set up in Georgetown. Jagdeo said some $10 million have been set aside to pay the trainers and buy computers and it is hoped that within a week’s time the workers will be notified where they have to go for the classes.
He also urged them to explore other government programmes through which they could receive assistance, such as the Difficult Circum-stances Programme and the low income housing and Women of Worth (WOW) financing facilities.
Given a chance to air their concerns the workers called for measures to ensure their NIS contributions were accounted for and for those employees residing at the Land of Canaan living quarters to be given time to relocate.
On the latter, Jagdeo said they could only hope the company would see it fit to do give them the time they need to find accommodations. There was also a complaint that some workers have not received their one’s month pay after notice of their termination and the Ministry of Labour was directed to look investigate.
In an invited comment afterwards on what happens after the three months, Labour Minister Manzoor Nadir said they should hopefully be able to place most of the workers in jobs through the collaboration of several government agencies. “Already we know about 80 persons have secured employment through a number of different agencies and only yesterday [Sunday] I personally called 12 of them because one employer called us over the weekend” and offered to employ 25 of them, he said. However, he said that given the specialised nature of the job the women were doing, they will have to do “a bit of retraining” and there were other government programmes to address them.
Several of the workers expressed appreciation for the government’s assistance, with Danwantie Persaud, a single mother of two, saying she was satisfied for now because it was her only option. “We are not working now and he offering a computer course … and de end of de month he give $25,000 which I think is a good idea. We gon learn about computering, maybe we can have a job….”
Wendella Walton said she was “anxious” to learn about the computer. “I really wanted to learn the computer but I would need the means and the time but I’m glad that the President has made it possible that I’ll be able to learn this computer and then I am glad that our President has put things in place so that our single parents could be able to benefit.”
Roy Samuels, a former production worker, said it was “reasonable” while Ferdinand Moore said he had not expected much. Moore, one of the company’s maintenance workers, was one of four individuals fired following the damage to the company’s boiler and he said he was happy that his case is being investigated by the Labour Ministry.
Moore, a tradesman and mechanic, said he would not be taking up the computer classes since he will be putting his skills to use and was looking forward to receiving the money due to him to start a business.
The workers were laid off on October 15, following damage to a vital water boiler on October 4.
Barama, in a statement, said the employees were made redundant after the “negligence on the part of trained and experienced personnel led to the boiler system not being fed with the required water supply and resulted in the overheating of the system. This immediately resulted in the entire factory being shutdown.”
The damaged boiler that is the cause for the layoffs is considered the heart of the factory, Barama said.
This is the first time that workers have actually been laid off en masse. Twice in 2007 workers were threatened with layoffs because of heavy fines from the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC). The GFC had imposed over $96 million in fines on the company, which was accused of underutilizing its concession while tapping logs in other concessions. However, workers were spared after intervention by the Ministry of Agriculture and talks with their union.
In December, the company had announced that it would have to close the factory for a few months to allow time to accumulate and build up a stock of Baromalli, the main species of peeler logs used for plywood processing, which was said to be unavailable at the time.
Barama Company Limited was established in Guyana in 1991 and is owned by Asian logging company Samling Global Limited. The Land of Canaan operation has a plywood factory and sawmill while the Buck Hall operation in Essequibo also has a sawmill, log pond and is the point of entry to the company’s forest concession. It was at the centre of more controversy recently when one of its employees was found dead in a wood chipper.
With big plans originally for plywood manufacturing and export from its huge 4.1 million acres North West concession, the company has fallen far short of expectations and has frequently incurred the wrath of regulators.