The bauxite union is committed to staying the course

Dear Editor,

The Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (GB&GWU) fervently believes in the principle that “a people united can never be defeated.” The court challenge brought by the Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc (BCGI) against the arbitration to resolve the three-year old dispute and restore normalcy to the lives of Guyanese workers goes to the core of who we are as a nation. BCGI cannot come to this country and treat us as second-class citizens and be allowed to get away with it. If as a people we cannot peacefully enjoy our rights and freedoms in our own land, then we have to fight for them, and the GB&GWU is prepared to do so, for however long it takes.

It becomes opportune to retrace the steps the union has come over the years and the valiant struggle being waged to restore justice to the workers and uphold the laws of this land:-

– May 22, 2009 workers refused to operate dump trucks because the air-conditioning units were not working and some had already fallen ill as a result. The company reacted by arbitrarily suspending and firing workers, saying that the strike violated the Collective Labour Agreement (CLA). Article 46 (2) of the CLA says “in the event of a strike, lockout or  any form of work stoppage the parties shall meet urgently and expeditiously to bring the situation back to normalcy.” The company also took the union leaders to court in as much as the  Occupational Safety and Health Laws, Section 56 (1) ‘Refusal to work’, expressly states, “A worker may refuse to work or do particular work where he has reasonable justification to believe that: (a) any equipment, machine, device or article the worker is to use or operate presents an imminent and serious danger to the life or health of himself, or another worker; or  (b) the physical condition of the workplace or the part thereof in which he works or is to work presents an imminent and serious danger to his life or health.”

–  November 22, 2009 bauxite workers proceeded on strike after the company threatened them not to accept its wage offer, which was a clear case of not negotiating in good faith.

– November 24, 2009 management visited the picket line and issued suspension and dismissal letters to workers. 57 workers were dismissed including the union leaders.

–  December 2, 2009 at a scheduled meeting by the Ministry of Labour the company presented a letter to the union dated December 1, 2009, saying that it had terminated “with immediate effect” the Collective Labour Agreement and would be moving to have the union derecognized. The company gave copies of the letter to then Minister of Labour Manzoor Nadir and Chief Labour Officer Yoganand Persaud. The meeting was aborted.

–  When workers returned from the December strike they were asked to sign a company prepared petition saying that they do not want the union to represent them. Some complied.

– December 30, 2009 and February 10, 2010 the union wrote the Chief Labour Officer seeking his intervention consistent with his responsibility. He did not intervene.

– January 4, 2010 the union wrote the Trade Union Recognition and Certification Board, which had a meeting on January 8, 2010 and was subsequently informed by the Board that it informed the company it has to deal with the union until it rules otherwise.

– January 13, 2010 the union wrote the Minister asking his intervention under the laws. The Minister did not act.

–  During this period the company moved to invite another union to meet with workers and solicited signatures, advising workers it does not like the union (GB&GWU) leaders.  The union raised its voice and the solicited union retreated.

–  March 18, 2010 the company commenced an exercise encouraging workers to form a Workers Committee. The workers refused and by circular dated April 1, 2009 workers were advised of the formation of a Workers Committee, headed by Orin Ford.

– June 30, 2010 there was an industrial accident on the Kwakwani Trail that claimed the life of Remington ‘Tuts‘ Wade and caused serious injury to others. The Ministry of Labour refused to investigate this incident consistent with the Occupational Safety and Health Laws.

-November 8, 2010 four workers were arbitrarily dismissed for protesting being fed expired food and the kitchen being infested with rats and rodents, even as the company admitted the unhealthy conditions. The ministry refused to investigate this matter consistent with the Occupational Safety and Health law in as much as the workers were exercising their right under Section 56(1) of the said act.

– May, 8 2011 the BCGI General Manager, Ruslan Volokhov carrying a spade in his hand threatened workers. This threat resulted in workers going to work late after being denied water from the afternoon of May 7 until after 9 am on May 8. During this period they were unable to bathe or prepare their meals. The outcry caused BCGI to send in a team from Russia to investigate the matter. An official told a newspaper (KN, May 14) “The manager behaved badly and disrespectfully. He was wrong. [T]he workers acted with restraint and with maturity and did not resort to strike actions over the matter.” The Ministry of Labour has commenced an inquiry but the state of it is unknown.

-October 30, 2011 a mining pit caved in and buried alive Franklin Reese and caused serious spinal injuries to Anthony Johnson. Again, another industrial accident and the Ministry of Labour refused to activate the laws and conduct an inquiry.

-December 12, 2011 the union wrote the new Labour Minister Nanda Gopaul seeking his intervention under the labour laws to resolve the disputes at BCGI.

-February 29, 2012, the Minister ordered arbitration between the union and the company.

This fight has been long and bitter and there is still distance to cover. During this period our families have been threatened; we have gone without; our children deprived; we picketed; sought the intervention of the Ethnic Relations Commission, Prime Minister Sam Hinds and Ministry of Labour and were ignored; ran an online petition in seven languages and received thousands of statements of support from around the world; carried our case to the National Assembly; shared our grievances with the man-in-the street, local, regional and international media; protested in various forms; and have been receiving solidarity from many within and without our borders.

Not once did we relent or think of giving up. BCGI will have to be naïve to think that having come this far we are going to let their delaying antics deter our struggle for justice. The law is on our side and we shall overcome. However long it takes, we are committed to staying the course.

Yours faithfully,
Leslie Gonsalves
Guyana Bauxite &
General Workers Union

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