Guysuco today said that its decision to review ties with main sugar union GAWU is “based purely on the expectations of the union as outlined in the ‘Recognition and the Avoidance and Settlement of Disputes’ agreement’”.
In the wake of the furore caused by its letter on Thursday to the union about the review, Guysuco this afternoon said it has on “numerous occasions had cause to remind the Union both through public and personal communication that a number of its strike actions were in contravention (of) their labour agreement, including their most recent one week industry wide strike.”
It said that the letter to the union sought to highlight the constant violations and more so, at such a crucial juncture. “No responsible Corporation would allow a union representing the majority of its workforce to continue such actions with impunity at the expense of the future viability of the sugar industry”, the corporation said.
The corporation charged that GAWU’s “abrasive” focus on the Corporation’s decision to review the agreement, rather than “honestly assess the serious concerns which led to such a decision is a clear indication of the headstrong approach by the union to achieve its means irrespective of the consequences.”
Guysuco reminded the union that the current challenges to the industry are real and can only be overcome by a “unified approach, dedication and hard work”.
Against this backdrop, the Corporation called on GAWU to act in the “best interest of the industry which is the provider for both the workers it represents and itself”.
Dubbing the action by GuySuCo an “attempt to ignite one of the most serious industrial confrontations in recent labour movement history,” the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG)—to which GAWU is affiliated—in a statement yesterday called on GuySuCo “to assess the consequences of its notification to GAWU, the industry and the nation in the interest of long term industrial peace.”
In recent times, the sugar industry has been experiencing low productivity and faced with crippling workers’ strikes, there have been several confrontations between GuySuCo and GAWU. On Thursday, according to the statement from FITUG, GuySuCo sent a letter to GAWU, which said that the Corporation is “considering to terminate the ‘Recognition and the Avoidance and Settlement of Disputes’ agreement dated 27th February, 1976 that currently subsists between your Union and the Corporation.” President of GAWU, Komal Chand also confirmed last evening the substance of the letter.
“This outrageous threat to a union, which battled for recognition upon the blood, sweat and tears and death of their members for almost thirty years (1948 – 1976) under autocratic regimes, reeks of “massa-day” disrespect for, not merely GAWU, but the entire working-class labour movement of this country,” FITUG said.
In recording its “extreme outrage,” FITUG said that it unreservedly supports GAWU in light of the “provocation.” The umbrella union body recalled that more than a year ago, Russian Bauxite conglomerate RUSAL threatened to derecognize the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (GB&GWU) and subsequently, unilaterally did so. The statement said that FITUG swiftly denounced that action as vehemently anti-working class and in contradiction to laid-down procedures and Guyana’s industrial employer-worker culture.
“Today, flying in the face of working-class history and contributions, the economic survival of Guyana, a completely state owned Corporation dares to attempt to ignite one of the most serious industrial confrontations in recent labour movement history,” FITUG said.
“Does GuySuCo really believe that any right thinking sugar-worker-member of GAWU would allow its union to be crushed by this now heartless employer? FITUG wishes to note that trade unions do address unresolved grievances and GAWU would not shirk its responsibility and duty to its members as it continues its struggle in the ensuing weeks,” it added.
The statement said that in this traditional Season of Peace and Goodwill, “when sugar workers are told they have no wage increases to get, GuySuCo dares to add heartless insult to mindless injury already inflicted on a major segment of the nation’s workforce.” It said that FITUG cannot believe that the Corporation wishes to ignite more conflict at this time and asked “who are the real authors of this “consideration” to terminate the 34-year old hard won recognition of the GAWU—the largest union in the Caribbean?”
The union umbrella added, “Preferring to wait and discover whether this threat is someone’s mistake or prank, FITUG calls on the GuySuCo to assess the consequences of its notification to GAWU, the industry and the nation in the interest of long term industrial peace”
With sugar workers represented by GAWU not being awarded a wage hike or an annual production incentive (API) this year because of dismal output, GuySuCo is bracing for likely industrial action in the New Year and is likely trying to stave this off. The absence of an increase and the customary API will likely rile workers.
Production this year so far is just over 215,000 tonnes, far below the previously anticipated figure of 280,000 tonnes. The corporation’s turnaround plan had also envisaged that with improved production this year GuySuCo would be able to aim for 300,000 tonnes next year.
With production being so low, GuySuCo’s financial situation is said to be dire and this has been compounded by the unending problems that the corporation has been experiencing with its expensive Chinese-built Skeldon factory, which is working at far below its capacity.
The GuySuCo letter is also pregnant with political ironies. It was the lack of recognition of GAWU that led it and its political ally the now-ruling PPP to agitate and strike against the then PNC government in the 1970s. After bitter, protracted strikes, GAWU was finally recognised under the Burnham administration in 1976.
To have the threat of de-recognition issued while a PPP/C government is in office signals how serious the crisis in the industry is. GuySuCo has threatened de-recognition over what it says is the union’s flouting of the procedures before a strike is called. Observers note that with the state the industry is in, the workers often ignore the advice of union representatives.
The GuySuCo move was considered all the more stunning as its Chairman is Nanda Kishore Gopaul, the former head of the sugar union NAACIE, which struggled alongside GAWU for the recognition of sugar workers’ rights. Gopaul is presently the permanent secretary in the Office of the President. The General Secretary of the PPP Donald Ramotar is also a member of the board of GuySuCo.
The strike could also have political ramifications for the ruling party with general elections just months away. Unrest in the sugar belt could soften support for the PPP in one of its major constituencies.
Political sources say the stand-off in the industry is also symbolic of the growing division between the Office of the President and hardliners in the ruling party. They say this is reflected in the ongoing rift between GuySuCo and the union even though it is clear that the corporation cannot afford any more losses from strikes.