There has been no admission of a fundamental human relations crisis to which ineffective communication has been a major contributor and this has exacerbated the situation in the sugar industry

Dear Editor,

Some persons would by now be familiar with the following often repeated quote:

“There are men and women of the Caribbean who are so blinded by their own brilliance that they do not see the darkness through which they lead others.”
This saying is as true today as when in 1972 George Lamming, the respected Barbadian writer uttered those words to, of all people, students of the St Vincent Grammar School.

Events in Guyana increasingly bear testimony to this fundamental predicament, and one that is particularly evident in the case of our national sugar industry.  Beginning with the vaunted Strategic Plan of 1998-2008; persistently followed by a ‘Turn Around Plan,’ plus a Strategic Blueprint projected to the year 2013, there has been variable performance by the sugar industry, but with a discouragingly perceptible downward trend – attributable in turn, to flood, inclement weather, the EU withdrawal of preferential price treatment, technological disruptions at a state-of-the-art ‘flagship’ facility, under-performing cane farmers, and prevalently delinquent field workers, the latter perceived to be misled by the representative union.

Note carefully the aforementioned reasons orchestratively imply that the faults lie not in ‘ourselves’ but in the stars and lesser beings, all of which seemed to have ‘pitched’ pinning ‘us’ flat on our faces.

Not once have we stopped for introspection, except to generate self-serving reasons for ‘our’ failed predictions.  Not once have we admitted to having misread the reasons for the troublingly disruptive misbehaviours; not once re-assessed the counter-productive outcomes of peremptory decision-making; not once a reflection on an environment made so constrictive that it inhibits initiative, diminishes productivity, demoralises the human spirit, disregards performance, reduces every effort to an undifferentiated across-the-board value of minimal consequence, and finally invites the steady migration of skills and incites the disruption of careers.

Failure to appreciate these scenarios must indicate a profound inability to understand the wider and deeper dilemma of the confused relationships between management and managed in the sugar industry.

From the lower end of the employment spectrum it has become increasingly difficult to identify the authority which determines the quantum and quality of work; while at the immediate upper level there is the gnawing uncertainty of what is the right thing to do, and how it should be achieved – what with intermittently scarce material resources, and more pervasively the right human resources.

At another higher level, the frequency of organisational restructuring sends a stronger subliminal message of dissatisfaction with the senior management cadre than is perhaps intended. And the publicised vilification of allegedly errant managers adds to employee concerns about credibility at unpredictable levels, while tentatively contemplating whose turn is next.

So that the trust factor need not be the result of the machinations of any union,  but rather the steady accumulation of doubts, swelling from trickle to virtual flow through each departmental operation; then gushing outwards and across each estate organisation, until eventually surging over rivers to inundate the industry in a flood of mis-confidence.

The non-admission of a fundamental human relations crisis to which ineffective communication has been a major contributor, has helped to exacerbate a situation which has been unfortunately defined only  in the  more banal terms of ‘industrial relations,’ and blaming the opposition – the union.  More myopically the union is discerned to be merely the executive, and specifically its leader.

Meanwhile the constituency of ignored workers must wonder why their employer does not speak directly to them; why the latter appears not to recognise the glaring fact of a contractual relationship between employer and employee.  For it is the latter who should make clear to the employee what dissatisfactions obtain regarding the persistent lack of commitment; low productivity; and its frustration with the pattern of poor attendance. It is for the employer’s representatives to carefully analyse the reasons why individual employees are only reporting for work 52% of the days available to them.

The discourse with the union, necessary also as it is, must however not presume that the latter is so masterful as to control the attendance of each individual worker. Indeed the obverse may well be the case – in that, amongst other factors, the fear of dwindling loyalties may be pushing the union to frightening actions.
While the extant situation has the potential for abrasive interactions between the contending parties at the highest level, at least one perception of the individual employee which seems to have been overlooked is that the authority of the executive management team of GuySuCo has been effectively emasculated by elevated part-time decision-makers – a pattern which incidentally can ruin the latter’s self-confidence, as well as the confidence of fellow stakeholders in the field (and elsewhere).

So that the ill-thought out option of de-recognition, rather that immobilise the union, would have precisely the opposite effect – of unleashing it from the constraints of any rules, and consequently signalling the disenfranchisement of its membership – the individual employee.  It was a typically counterproductive judgement call, that only caused the political directorate of the GuySuCo Board to lose face.

The mere rationalisation that it was a tactical ploy was offered with a sincerity that sought only to beguile the less informed, while inviting the incredulity, if not derision, of those who know as much, if not better, about industrial relationships within the industry, and in general.

In a distinctively non-cricketing environment where ‘spin’ is however an acceptable staple, one observes the change to the unfamiliar ‘leg-cutter’ which has emerged from the current imbroglio – of de-recognition by an employer – a process, incidentally, for which there is no provision in the Trades Union Recognition Act of 1997.

This second attempt at a ‘tactical’ manoeuvre to de-recognise a union has been nobly condemned as unacceptable on the current ‘watch.’  GuySuCo may have been misled by the success achieved earlier by none other than a foreign employer in a de-recognising another union, representative of another group of workers – an action which, despite well-publicised protestations, certainly did not draw any objection on the subject Minister’s ‘watch.’  Wherein then lies the fundamental principle of protecting workers’ interests?  Some may ponder, not unjustifiably, the palpable contrast in the two scenarios, and on the implications for the worker movement in general.  In either case the only source of reference would have been a relevant provision in the collective agreements signed by the respective parties, but it would appear that no such authority was exhumed to inform the formulation of GuySuCo’s ‘chairless’ greeting card.

The rub of it, in the final analysis, lay in the climactic offer to delegations of workers of a one-off 5% increase on wages.  However positively one thinks of the initiative, one is still forced to consider the side-effects of this palliative dosage, of which managers were not explicitly considered as deserving.

The exercise must certainly raise a series of self-examinations, respectively at the executive management level, the board level and the political level, about the cumulative projection of disparate approaches to discoursing with workers and their representatives.

The point of more direct communication with employees appears to have been made, if only co-incidentally.  Perhaps, however, the spirit of the season could have been better exploited to inspire greater goodwill amongst all the stakeholders, closer collaboration between managers and managed, better understanding between management and union; and ultimately to rally commitment to a more productive partnership that would take ownership of the responsibility for the improved production and productivity of a revitalised industry in the new decade beginning 2011.

Let this be our pledge and our vision!

Yours faithfully,
E B John

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