President Bharrat Jagdeo yesterday announced a $300M severance package for Diamond sugar workers, saying that government decided to disburse the monies and end a court battle which could have dragged on for years.
Finance Minister Dr. Ashni Singh was briefed on the development at Cabinet and was asked to find the money. The severance pay, which covers some 325 workers, is expected to be released to the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) sometime next week and later disbursed to workers.
Sugar workers had sued the state over the severance pay and the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) later took over one of the claims on behalf of the workers—at least two separate court applications had been filed against the government.
GAWU is, however, disputing the listing of 325 workers for severance pay, with Union President Komal Chand remarking yesterday that “We will fight for more of our workers.” He said that close to 400 workers had been affected when the corporation discontinued its operations at Diamond, East Bank Demerara, but observed that some quit before the workers were relocated.
Sugar workers who were working under protest at the La Bonne Intention (LBI) Estate automatically qualify for the severance, Chand told Stabroek News, while noting that the union will engage the corporation on the issue of workers who worked for a few days at LBI before leaving. According to him, the workers who left the job before the transfer to LBI do not qualify for severance.
GuySuCo was strongly opposed to the severance payout, arguing that the workers are part of the LBI Estate and that no position had been made redundant after the operations ended at Diamond—the retirement of the Diamond lands was explained as being part of a programme to merge and modernise its East Demerara Estates
The President met with the workers at the Diamond Secondary School yesterday to personally deliver the news of the severance payout, and he charged that critics of the administration will put a political spin on the payout. Jagdeo observed the court decision could have gone either way; in favour of the state or the workers, while lamenting the sluggish pace at which cases are tried in the local courts.
Previously, Jagdeo had met with the sugar workers while negotiations were ongoing and he explained yesterday that government’s decision was driven by the fact that workers are on the job but dissatisfied. He referred to the situation as untenable, while adding that it goes against government’s development efforts.
But perhaps more critical than his observation that workers were working at LBI amid constant complaints of being frustrated and calling for severance, was his assessment of the financial state of the country’s sugar corporation. Jagdeo bluntly told workers that GuySuCo would have tanked years ago if the government had not transferred billions of dollars to the industry to keep it going. “The industry would have failed without government support,” he said, adding that around $50B was transferred from the public treasury to the corporation within the past ten years.
“GuySuCo can’t meet its costs or pay its bills without government support,” Jagdeo pointed out. But he said too that losing the Diamond workers is a blow to an industry which constantly struggles with labour turnout. He called on the workers to look to the industry for jobs in other areas, saying jobs are opening in information technology, among other fields. Further, he said the country has a labour crisis in various sectors and declared that in another five to ten years Guyana will have to open up and bring in people to work.
The President used the occasion to reject privatisation of the sugar industry and he charged that PNCR presidential candidate David Granger lacks an understanding of how the economy works. Granger has publicly favoured private investment in GuySuCo.
Jagdeo said Granger has no experience in political and economic matters, and he went further by questioning his military experience. He told the workers that if GuySuCo is privatised the industry will not be in operation for long. “At the first sign of trouble a private investor will shut down the industry…you think a private investor will stay if production falls?”
Jagdeo said that his critics, including sections of the media, will put a spin on his words at the meeting yesterday, adding, “I don’t care—I never cared what they thought about me.” He also criticised AFC presidential candidate, Khemraj Ramjattan, saying that he has been trying to mobilise the workers whenever a little problem arises.
Sugar taking a
Prior to the President’s address, Chand also slammed Granger for his privatisation comments and referred to the PNCR candidate as being “out of touch.” He said Granger does not understand the role sugar plays in the country and or the complexities of the industry. “The statement was irresponsible…he must be seen not as a friend of the industry,” he added.
Chand questioned if a private investor can run GuySuCo and make it profitable why the government cannot do the same. He called on the workers to work with the corporation and return the industry to a state of profitability.
And commenting on the state of the industry, Chand said, “Sugar is taking a beating.” He pointed to the current production in the first crop, which is expected to reach 100,000 tonnes for the first time in eight years by this weekend. He said the industry needs to do better, since better prices are available on the world market. However, Jagdeo, speaking on this issue, said that Guyana currently earns more in Europe per pound of sugar than the world market prices which Chand quoted.
Agriculture Minister, Robert Persaud also addressed the gathering yesterday, saying that government remains committed to sugar. He also lamented the state of the labour turnout, noting it currently averages around 45 percent across the estates.
But after the session wrapped up, some workers were aggrieved and others, overjoyed. The majority were in praise of the President for agreeing on the severance payout while others grumbled openly about the state of the industry and the relations between the government and the union.
While Chand was addressing the group, many aired their dissatisfaction with him, saying he failed to represent them at critical periods. One worker even stood up and said Chand’s leadership was found wanting and that is why they had turned to Ramjattan. However, the same worker later thanked the President and he told his fellow workers that this is an elections year, “and they know what to do.”
Another worker, identified only as “Mr. Thomas” stood up to air his grievances since his name was not on the list to benefit from the severance package. He said GAWU advised workers not to work after the crop ended abruptly at Diamond, which meant he was out of work for over a year. According to him, he is entitled to severance despite the fact that he did not transfer to LBI.
Chand denied that he gave such advice to workers, which resulted in an uproar as Thomas and those supporting him got vocal on the issue. Thomas and many others stormed out of the meeting after he was asked to take up the issue with the union.