The Bai Shan Lin disclosure

Last weekend’s announcement by the Chinese company Bai Shan Lin that it is seeking to recruit 700 workers with various types of skills to work in areas associated with its multi-sectoral investment in Guyana got the attention of most, if not all, of the media houses – and with good reason. The fact that the Bureau of Statistics appears to classify the national unemployment figures as a state secret notwithstanding, we know enough about unemployment levels in Guyana to understand the significance of an advertisement that announces that seven hundred jobs are up for grabs.

Perhaps the first thing that should be said about the Bai Shan Lin investment is that it is interesting that it is concerned, in large measure, with adding value to locally harvested timber. Of course, promises of that nature have been made and broken in the past and log exporters have made a killing from what in essence have been exercises in deceit. We have gone over, time and again, the old story of the economy not benefiting nearly enough from the additional earnings to be made from value-added pursuits. These days, timber harvesting having become even more circumscribed by environmental constraints, the government needs to be reminded of its responsibility to implement and, more importantly, enforce the monitoring mechanisms to ensure the harvested timber attracts the promised value-added input.

To return to the issue of the seven hundred Guyanese employees which Bai Shan Lin says it wants to recruit, it is it comforting to learn that at least some of the skills required for kick-starting the company’s investment are available in Guyana, It would, of course, be equally gratifying to know that the Chinese company has also made allowances for the transfer of skills to its Guyanese work force in order that they can remain employable for the remainder of the project and beyond. Quite apart from the taxes and other returns that will accrue to the public treasury from the Bai Shan Lin investment, we ought to be able to anticipate that jobs, many jobs will flow from it.

The sheer size of the projected Bai Shan Lin work force raises another key issue, that of ensuring the existence of mechanisms for the protection of the rights of the local work force. No one wants to preempt just how the relationship between the Chinese employers and their Guyanese work force will pan out, though it is worth recalling that in recent years we have had to deal with some ugly episodes as far as the relationship between the Rusal managers and the Guyanese employees at the Kwakwani bauxite operations are concerned, and, perhaps more importantly, it is worth noting as well that the Government of Guyana has been less than assertive in laying down the law as far as Rusal’s adherence to workers’ rights is concerned.

Here, the question that arises is whether, given primarily the size of its labour force, the Chinese company would not be well advised to make allowances for strong and effective labour representation and to create a human resources management team that helps the company to operate with the compass of a clear and enlightened understanding of the Guyanese work ‘culture.’

There have been times when we might have been led to believe that foreign investors are not particularly keen on labour unions which are sometimes seen as impediments to the effective implementation of the wishes of management. We know from the experience of Omai Gold Mines Ltd that this is far from true, and just last week another Canadian investor, Guyana Goldfields told this newspaper that it was altogether disposed to the unionization of its local employees. There is really no reason why Bai Shan Lin ought not to be amenable to legal mechanisms that protect workers’ rights and here one expects that the government will assume a posture which causes the investor to get a sense of what is expected of it as far as the protection of workers’ rights is concerned.

If, therefore, the announcement that Bai Shan Lin is about to kickstart several major projects in Guyana and that in the process several hundred Guyanese will secure employment ,is a noteworthy development, it really does no harm to remind both the company and the Guyana Government of the commitments that attend the undertaking.

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