Recent conversations with the Chairman of the Private Sector Commission (PSC) and the President of the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) suggest that both organisations are keen to pursue agendas that have to do with enhancing the quality of the private sector and increasing its contribution to national wealth.
Though there has not been a similar engagement with the President of the Guyana Manufacturing and Services Association (GMSA), the depth of the prevailing crisis in the manufacturing sector is already known. And, of course, is likely to be rendered even worse if the recent proposal of a staggering 26.7 per cent hike in electricity tariffs is approved.
There are those who would argue – with some justification, in our view – that the biggest problem confronting the Business Support Organisations (BSOs) has to do with what appears to be a requirement that they continually perform a delicate balancing act. However much they may want to mutter under their breath about conditions that impair their efficiency, they must at least demonstrate a semblance of support for the government’s business policies.
This is nothing new. Those of us who have been following relations between the government and the private sector will doubtless recall those occasions when private sector officials were ‘told off’ and the BSOs targeted for official opprobrium for doing or saying the wrong thing or perhaps not doing or saying anything. However much they may refute this, it is true that the business community and the BSOs have cultivated a refined understanding of the nuanced language associated with public statements that go out of their way not to offend the government.
The problem with this posture is that the private sector and the BSOs now appear to have become so immersed in the socio-political issues of the day that they have become neglectful of some of the simple but substantive issues. There are issues like safety and health in workplaces, the sexual exploitation of female employees, wage-related exploitation, child labour and a host of other very basic problems surrounding employer/employee relationships on which BSOs rarely if ever sound their collective voice.
If no one questions the importance of state/private sector relations in the Guyana society, the truth of the matter is that the private sector appears to have far too little difficulty with what appears to be a permanent role as the junior partner in a relationship where, all too frequently, its vital interests occupy a back burner position.
Take child labour, for example. What neither the government nor the BSOs appears to recognise is that there is hardly any need to go to the trouble of visiting interior gold mines to find evidence of it. The practice exists in our municipal markets, mechanic shops, downtown stores and a host of other business places where boys and girls who are visibly under the legal working age can be found labouring. As far as child labour and all of the various anomalies are concerned it is less a matter of ignorance of their existence of the parts of the BSOs and more a matter of what often seems to be a preoccupation with keeping their relations with government on ‘even keel’.
Some things may be changing. As manifested in recent evidence, some private sector functionaries are seemingly no longer prepared to play the game of cuddling up to the government out of concern that were they to do otherwise their entrepreneurial pursuits would – in one way or another – be compromised. And this, it seems, may well be creating differences of opinion inside some BSOs. As one businessman puts it, we may well be on the verge of a significant shift in the behaviour of BSOs that has to do “partly with politics and partly with the emergence of a new breed of entrepreneurs.”
One of the clearest recent examples of that generational shift may well have been exemplified in the decision by the predominantly younger breed comprising the GCCI leadership to open a window to much smaller businesses to become members.
If no one would say much about it publicly, this newspaper was reliably informed that the move created a furore between the traditionalists who were decidedly reticent about accommodating smaller businesses and those who felt that the time for a change had come. It has been said too that there may be elements of the same divisiveness in the race for the chairmanship of the Private Sector Commission.
The point about all of this is that there is clearly a need for the BSOs to unclutter their agendas, refocus from what appears to be a preoccupation with politics and begin to do more to fulfil what ought to be their real mission; that is, to create a more convivial business environment. They must assume a posture that removes the stigma of a ‘lesser partner’ and choose an agenda that reflects a genuine desire to help create a more convivial private sector environment. What is really needed is a private sector that stands for principle and assertiveness.