In his starkest warning to date, President Donald Ramotar yesterday said that the sugar industry is at a crisis point and in desperate need of resuscitation but he offered no concrete proposals while inviting ideas from stakeholders.
Ramotar’s remarks came at the annual observance for the Enmore martyrs and in the backdrop of the lowest first crop for sugar which has sparked concerns about the future of the industry.
The President said “I am ready for all ideas. I am ready to accept all workable ideas that will turn this industry around. If the workers and the unions feel that they know and they understand the industry very, very good and they can produce better than the management I am ready to even consider giving them the land.”
President Ramotar, who critics have noted spent more than 18 years on the board of the Guyana Sugar Corporation and during the period when the downswing began, proposed that cooperatives could be established and charged with the manufacturing of sugar. He said “let them produce because sugar is produced in the fields”.
Ramotar stated that the colonial mentality was still pervasive in the industry because workers did not feel as though they were part owners of the industry. The President continued that workers feel side-lined and management still operated in a “high-handed” way. The government has signalled that a shake-up of the sugar corporation is imminent.
During his feature address at Enmore honouring the 65th anniversary of the killing of five Enmore sugar workers by colonial police during a labour dispute, the President said that the colonial thought process was a continuous debilitating factor preventing improvements to the sector.
Speaking to Stabroek News after Ramotar’s address, the President of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), Komal Chand stated that without investment and nurturing of the industry, co-operatives were not realistic. He said that while he supported the initiative it would need to be done as a pilot project on one of the estates and monitored. “I don’t see co-ops successful on a whole scale just like that. We need to nurture it”, he said.
“Culturally people have this way of just being independent and not wanting to work together, share the machines to one farm to the next [and] who should get priority”, Chand, the head of the main sugar union, told Stabroek News.
Chand instead stated that if the President was serious about co-operatives then investments needed to be made. He said that “developing the confidence of the worker in this philosophy and making it work so it can gain momentum” was just as important as providing the physical machines to do the work.
President Ramotar stated in his address that “now is the time that the industry has an even bigger role to play in the development of Guyana”.
Speaking to Stabroek News after his presentation, the President said that persons who showcased a greater knowledge of the industry had to step up and assist with problem-solving initiatives. However, while the President called for more definitive action by the experts he evaded giving specific details on the expertise and qualifications of Raj Singh, the proposed Executive Chairman of the Guyana Sugar Corporation. Plans to appoint Singh to the post have drawn criticism from various sectors.
The President would only say yesterday that “Raj Singh is a specialist in human resource and industrial relations management. He has a lot of sugar experience he was a deputy head to D.P. Sankar (former GuySuCo Industrial Relations Director) so he is highly qualified and suited for the job.” Critics have said this experience would not qualify him to run a corporation that is in such a dire state.
When Stabroek News asked further what specifically qualified Singh to earn a proposed $2.5 million monthly to Chair GuySuCO during a period when sugar production has been the lowest in recorded history, the President did not supply further details. The President noted that it wasn’t a question of the industry being embattled, but that Singh has worked in the industry prior. Critics have been calling for a more experienced Board inclusive of persons capable of addressing some of the sugar industry’s woes. Yesterday, Ramotar said that Singh’s salary, his ability to turn the industry around and his proposed value for money was “something to be seen.”
Chand yesterday told Stabroek News that Singh’s proposed salary was problematic. He said that “you have a serious problem if you have high paid people at a time when the industry is in trouble and you’re unable to take into account (the) increase in cost of living,” for workers who can earn one percent of the proposed Executive Chairman’s salary. Chand said that the sugar sector is plagued with financial woes and to have an Executive Chairman making such a large sum of money did not send the right message that the industry was serious with self-regulating. He stated that for years GAWU has called for more experienced persons to be added to the Board. Chand told Stabroek News that more experienced agriculturalists were needed.
He added that while cane variety is what is normally typical in the industry, GuySuCo was struggling and the diversity had to be constrained for cost reasons. Chand noted that he foresaw serious problems down the road if GuySUCo was willing to pay an executive $2.5 million monthly and fill the Board of Directors with people with little knowledge of the sugar industry, agriculture and fiscal accountability.
Chand added that the first course of action had to be research and charged that the department at GuySuCo has not been effectively caring for the fields for the past 25 years. He noted that for years GAWU has been calling for the estates to rejuvenate a percentage of the land. He said that the land needed to be under water for a period of time allowing for the nutrients to penetrate. Chand noted that for two consecutive years GuySuCo could not blame the weather and the labour shortage for low production because the cane being reaped does not yield the amount of sugar it did in the years past.
Chand predicted that GuySuCo would be unable to make the 2013 target of 240,000 tonnes of sugar simply because the fields won’t give the yield. He said that studying the first crop’s dismal 48,000 tonnes was enough of an indicator that the second crop was not likely to make 193,000 tonnes even though the second crop of the year is always significantly higher than the first. He warned that if the industry was allowed to continue on this way for another six months there may be irreparable damage. Chand said that as the fields are left to deteriorate and the cane is left to provide less yield, greater damage that may not be reversible is being done.