Foreign investment and labour relations

This past week or so, two foreign investors, one Canadian, the other Chinese, made public some of the pertinent details of what would appear to be pretty impressive plans to invest in the country’s gold mining and forest products sectors.

Setting aside the taxes and royalties that ought to accrue to the public coffers from these investments there are also additional benefits to be realized from the contribution which they make to providing work for Guyanese in what has become a permanent condition of high unemployment in our country.

The Chinese company Bai Shan Lin says it will provide 700 jobs for Guyanese by the beginning of March and 10,000 jobs in the longer term. Guyana Goldfields will – directly at least – employ considerably fewer Guyanese though, arguably, the real significance of the jobs which this company will offer reposes in the opportunity for the significant enhancement of skills in the mining sector in circumstances where the Guyana Goldfields investment provides us with the country’s first ever underground mining operation.

Prospects for the creation of perhaps 2,000 new jobs in the short to medium term – making allowances for unforeseen circumstances that might perhaps result in downward adjustments in the numbers – are not to be taken lightly in our circumstances. On the other hand, if the contemporary experiences of other developing countries are anything to go by, it would appear as though the accelerated culture of foreign investment, particularly in the extractive (mining and forestry) sectors in developing countries has brought with it increased levels of disregard for workers’ rights. The other two points that should be made in this context have to do, firstly, with the preparedness of governments in investment-starved countries to turn a blind eye to the transgression of workers’ rights and, secondly, with the fact that trade unions in those countries appear to have been unprepared for the sheer aggression of the contemporary wave of investors.

To return to the local scenario it would, we believe, be entirely fair to state that the local labour movement is currently, weak, distracted and in a fractious state, circumstances that certainly cause one to wonder aloud as to whether any of our local trade unions are currently equipped to take on the challenge of representing workers employed by a foreign investor that is probably likely to have its own ‘heavy duty’ human resources and industrial relations experts on hand. That having been said our local trade unions are unlikely to pass up what they are bound to regard as the potentially lucrative bargaining units which the work forces of Bai Shan Lin and Guyana Goldfields will represent.

Both Bai Shan Lin and Guyana Goldfields have expressed to this newspaper an interest in what is termed in industrial relations language ‘workers rights.’ In the case of Bai Shan Lin, Chief Executive Officer Whenze Chu has said that the company is committed to respecting Guyana’s labour laws, that it intends to pay particular attention to those aspects of workers’ rights and entitlements that have to do with safety and health and that it intends to appoint a local functionary at the level of Deputy General Manager to serve as a link between the company and the workers.

Guyana Goldfields has said that it will be concerned with the broad spectrum of issues that come under the umbrella of industrial relations. Not only has the company declared its intention to have a unionized work force but from what we have been told it has already had approaches from one (maybe more) trade unions that are keen to sign Collective Labour Agreements with the company.

If relatively recent events are anything to go by, the disposition of foreign investors to respect the rights of Guyanese workers has left much to be desired. Here, one recalls the various run-ins between the Russian bauxite company RUSAL and the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (GB&GWU) and at least one ugly confrontation between a company manager and workers in which a worker was assaulted.

In the particular case of RUSAL’s industrial relations track record, what has not helped is, first, evidence of a woefully limited capacity on the part of the union concerned to effectively represent the interests of its members as manifested in frequent complaints to that effect to this newspaper and, secondly, evidence of an altogether unacceptable indifference on the part of the Government of Guyana to setting RUSAL straight on the issue of workers’ rights.

There have also been reports of mistreatment of non-unionized workers by urban Chinese merchants in the commercial sector. Here again, one does not get the impression that the authorities have been prepared to throw down the gauntlet, so to speak, in the matter of protecting the rights of Guyanese workers.

The recent translation of the local labour laws into Chinese would appear to mark the start of a much-needed initiative to create an enhanced environment for what has been the increased presence of Chinese investors in Guyana. The other thing that should be said on the subject of Chinese investment and labour relations is that a convivial industrial relations climate is much more likely to emerge from a circumstance in which our Chinese guests take the time and trouble to understand those aspects of the Guyanese culture that are fundamentally different from their own, particularly when it comes to interaction between and among people. That, for the most part, is the responsibility of the Chinese investor community and the Government of Guyana, and it probably will not hurt if the Chinese were to seek membership of the local private sector umbrella organizations.

Given what we are told is the significance of foreign investment – particularly in sectors that require a large labour force – to Guyana’s economic development, there is simply no way of avoiding the issue of industrial relations as a key facet of investment promotion policy. One feels that this is where the government has been weighed and found wanting, the prevailing view being that  industrial relations is very much a backburner issue, the more important official concern being with the material returns to be derived from foreign investment. Of course, the notion that there is no obligation to respect workers’ rights could, in itself, attract just the kinds of rapacious overseas investors whom we would be better off without, to say nothing of the likely socio-political consequences of an unstable industrial relations climate.

It need hardly be said that the government’s investment ‘manifesto’ promotion push really ought to speak as much to the responsibilities associated with respecting workers’ rights as it does to the concessions available to investors. It is worth recalling, for example, that in the face of repeated transgressions of workers’ rights by RUSAL’s Russian managers at Kwakwani the government simply refused to assume an assertive position.

The local labour movement, too, needs to pay much closer attention to the industrial relations implications of foreign investment. That would of course require that they enhance their capacity to deliver the various services associated with their mandate. On the whole, what would appear to be the likelihood of a significant level of new job-creation in the short to medium term arising out of foreign investment gives rise to the need for both government and the labour movement to take the issue of workers’ rights far more seriously.

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