The threat by the state-owned Guyana Sugar Corporation (Guysuco) to de-recognise the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU) is intemperate and reckless.
The media report that Guysuco has notified GAWU that it is considering ending the 1976 Recognition and the Avoidance and Settlement of Disputes Agreement with the union is an extreme provocation.
This year sugar workers were given not a cent either as wage increase or annual bonus as Guysuco did not achieve its set target. The workers were literally expected to “produce or perish”.
I am shocked that the Government could condone this attack on GAWU and the sugar workers; and that leaders of my party, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), would expect to be in silent conspiracy with this outrage against the vanguard of the working class movement in Guyana. I can no longer remain silent. This is a grave national matter, and one of conscience.
I dissociate myself from what seems to be a state-party alliance in sledge-hammering GAWU, judging from the leading role of Dr. N.K. Gopaul, Permanent Secretary in the Office of the President and former acting Head of the Presidential Secretariat, as Chairman of Guysuco, and Mr. Donald Ramotar, General Secretary of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), who is a prominent member of the Board.
The sugar workers have been the bedrock of the anti-colonial struggles for independence from Great Britain. For 28 years (1948-1976) they fought for industrial democracy and won union recognition. For 28 years (1964-1992) they were in the front trenches for restoration of democratic rule in Guyana. Their struggles gave birth to the PPP, and were exemplified in the commitment of Cheddi Jagan, the sacrifices of the Enmore Martyrs, Kowsilia, and many others.
No one denies that the sugar industry is in crisis due to a combination of exogenous and internal management factors. Low worker turn-out, work stoppages and inclement weather compounded the problem. But the sugar workers cannot be the only scapegoats for failure.
For many years, I have been associated with the cause of Guyana’s sugar workers and, invariably, marched under their banner in their epic fight for union recognition. As a young teacher I founded a school to help mainly sugar workers’ children to get an education. Later, as a journalist, I captured in many feature articles the consistent and unwavering struggles in the sugar belt.
And I can attest that their union has never allowed itself to be intimidated or blackmailed in the past. I expect no more from GAWU which should, with dignity and responsibility, prosecute all reasonable options to end the stalemate in the industry. Strikes must be the last resort.
I also expect Guysuco to re-think its options, and to eschew its intention to de-recognise GAWU. The de-recognition threat ought to be withdrawn immediately and unconditionally before irreparable damage is done. The Government would do well also to explore all possibilities to give the sugar workers even a nominal wage increase. Zero is an insult, not an option.
I’d like to borrow the poignant words of Ricky Singh, a former colleague of mine, when he wrote several years ago in another context, that we should, as we observe Christmas, “Light a Candle” for our sugar workers.
Moses V. Nagamootoo