Photos by Anjuli Persaud
Hundreds of public servants took to the streets yesterday to protest budget cuts proposed by the AFC, after being told by government that it would result in many of them losing their jobs.
Although some said they were forced to join the protest, many told Stabroek News that they were worried about how they would be able to maintain their families if they lost their jobs, following the proposal by AFC Member of Parliament Khemraj Ramjattan to slash the national budget by $3.824 billion by reducing spending at three ministries.
In a move the AFC says is intended to ensure taxpayers get value for money allocated in the budget, Ramjattan has moved for the National Assembly to reduce allocations for expenditure under the Ministry of Tourism, Industry and Commerce, the Ministry of Housing and Water, and the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport. The reductions would also see budgetary allocations for “contract employees” in all three ministries almost halved.
But protesting workers, who lined Brickdam, dubbed the move by AFC leaders to be “heartless” and “reckless,” and accused the party of victimising them because of their “assumed political affiliations.”
One of them, Ministry of Culture employee David Sookram, told this newspaper that he was sure that good sense will prevail and the political parties will work in the best sense of the nation for their continued development. “It is a surprise to me, because I thought that the debate was going in order and pretty civil. But for a political party to come so sudden with such a proposal it is difficult to understand what is going on,” Sookram said.
Some workers, however, said that they were coerced into joining the protest, explaining that they received directives from superiors at their respective ministries that they had go out and give solidarity for the protest against budget cuts that would directly affect them. These workers said they were fearful of being victimised. “The [Permanent Secretary] took everyone in the conference room and said that we are to go to the protest now to give solidarity, so we were forced
here,” said a protestor who asked not to be identified.
But government ministers, who were among the protesting workers, denied that workers were instructed to protest, saying it was a rumour started by the AFC.
Among the ministers who joined the workers was Education Minister Priya Manickchand, who said that the protest action was a rejection of the AFC’s proposal.
“This is a heartless and reckless move by the AFC, which I believe was a move to make this country ungovernable and it has to be rejected by this population and I also hope that this discloses who the real AFC leaders are,” she said. “AFC has good people and I’m sure they are shocked by this move by their leaders and I call on the good people within the AFC to reject this move by their leaders and remove the leaders who have gone to parliament and done this,” she added, while
saying that the large turnout by the contracted workers shows the AFC where the workers stand and that they are committed to their own betterment.
Manickchand, who accused the AFC of starting a rumour that workers were being forced to protest, explained that workers from her ministry were given the option to go out on the streets in solidarity with their fellow workers.
Although the Education Ministry is not targeted by the AFC’s proposal for cuts, the minister warned that such a scenario could “shut down” the Learning Channel, because it is staffed by contracted employees, including the sweepers and cleaners. She added that cuts for contracted workers could also shut down the Examinations Division, NCERD, and the Placement Unit, which are all staffed by such workers.
Like Manickchand, Human Services and Social Security Minister Jennifer Webster denied that workers were being forced to protest. “I don’t know anything about workers being forced to come out and protest. They took a decision on their own and they have a right to do so,” she said, maintaining that the protest action was prompted by the public servants themselves who have been reading and following the deliberations on the budget in the National Assembly via the press.
She said that most of the contracted workers are public servants and all of them are qualified, with many holding degrees. She said that for the AFC to table a motion, that would leave the workers without jobs, was plain barbaric.
Attorney General Anil Nandlall said the AFC’s position would jeopardise nearly 200 jobs in the ministries and hinder their ability to execute the government’s developmental plans for the year.
“The Ministry of Housing [has] scheduled to distribute 6,500 house lots for the year, then several areas of the country have been targeted to have water pumps to ensure potable water supply and all these projects will be affected,” Nandlall said.
Further, he noted that if the projects are affected, the government will still have several contractual obligations to honour, most of which are being financed by international financial agencies. “These agencies have timeframes to have those projects to be done and all of this would be put in jeopardy,” he said. “But ultimately, the people of Guyana will be the beneficiaries of the injustice and the underdevelopment and backwardness which will flow from this,” he warned.
Also present at the demonstration was Mayor of Georgetown Hamilton Green, who said that the public servants were being fooled about an opposition move to cut jobs. Green said that the real issue was “a blatant waste of money, a budget that will continue all these illegal, immoral and corrupt contracts, putting billions into Guyana Power and Light and [the] Skeldon [sugar factory], which is a complete waste of money.”
Green added that he was certain that the workers on the picket line were ordered to come out on the streets to demonstrate and that they were not doing it voluntarily.