Despite saying that they would do so amid a public outcry, logging company Baishanlin is yet to begin work on a wood processing plant at its Moblissa site even as the company continues to use the defunct Coomacka sawmill at Linden as the base for packing containers of logs for export.
The Chinese firm is also building tugs and barges even as its Guyanese employees complain of mistreatment at the hands of company officials. Months after Baishanlin cleared acres of land at the Demerara River waterfront at Moblissa, no construction activity for a processing plant has started. A small white flag with the words ‘Bai Shan Lin Wood’ printed on it fluttering forlornly in the wind was the lone indication that the cleared land was the future site of a wood operation.
Earlier this year, Baishanlin came under severe pressure over the absence of value-added after it was reported that it had been exporting dozens of containers of high-value logs.
Commissioner of For-ests James Singh had previously told Stabroek News that Baishanlin had acquired 200 acres of swamp land at the Moblissa site on which to build a wood processing facility. He had said that by July 2013, construction machinery such as concrete mixers and steel framing for the factory would be imported.
It was expected that before the end of last year, the company would have commenced construction for a 2015 completion. Minister of Natural Re-sources and the Environ-ment, Robert Persaud had also said that Baishanlin has guaranteed that the majority of logs harvested would be for local processing since its planned wood processing facility would need a steady supply. According to the minister, the wood processing facility will be in operation come 2015.
However, when Stabroek News visited the site last week, except for the ship and barge building operations, there was no sign of any construction of a wood-processing plant. Sources with knowledge of the company’s operations told Stabroek News that it would not commence this year and the company had experienced some financial difficulties. It is not clear when construction would begin but it is clear that it would not begin this year.
Ship and barge
Notwithstanding that, a ship and barge building operation was in full swing. According to one source, the company had already built several barges with at least one being used by Baishanlin and another being sold to a local construction company while a third was removed from the site. The company is also building tugs and during the time of Stabroek News’ visit, two barges and a tug were in various stages of construction.
A fleet of sand trucks was parked at the site while cranes, excavators, graders and other machinery were on site.
A Chinese national who identified himself as the manager indicated that he could not say anything on the operations there and said that Stabroek News would have to speak to officials at the company’s head office. He refused to let this newspaper look around declaring that it is private property and that the reporters would have to leave.
Meanwhile, at the Coomacka site, a container was being packed with logs. A dozen other containers were on site waiting to be packed with logs. In the sawmill itself, which Baishanlin had acquired from another Chinese logging company, Jaling, no activity was ongoing and it appeared to not have been used for sawmilling activities for quite a while.
Some employees loung-ed around. A Chinese national identified as the manager, said that he could not speak English despite attempts to engage him. He ordered the reporters to leave and when a Stabroek News reporter snapped a photo, he stated that it must be deleted and attempted to grab the phone to ensure that this was done.
Meanwhile, Stabroek News managed to contact several employees of Baishanlin who related the working conditions they are forced to work under. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, several said that the company did not deduct National Insurance Scheme (NIS) dues from their salaries despite being asked to do so by the employees. Stabroek News was told that some employees had even sought the intervention of NIS officials but nothing was done.
15 Guyanese are employed at the Coomacka site, a far cry from when around 80 persons were employed there. Stabroek News was told that Baishanlin did not provide safety gear for employees and facilities were poor. The employees also are only allowed three days off in the month with work on holidays and Sundays earning them no extra pay. After a year is up, they are also not granted leave. “I wan know if is so big the people (Baishanlin) big cos nobody ain coming and look into the matter,” one employee said. “Is almost anything is go on,” the employee said even as concern was expressed at the lack of NIS deductions. “If a worker sick, they ain get no NIS to get,” the employee said. They also said that they could not “talk too hard” because if they upset the managers, they could be fired.
According to one employee, many Guyanese have been fired in this way. The employee related that company officials sometimes do not even cite a reason for firing someone. The employee said that when the person goes to collect his salary, he is told that he is no longer working with the company and this is how many have learnt that they have been fired. “When they fed up of you, they just tell you they ain want you no more,” an employee said.
There were also complaints of not being paid on time with Stabroek News being told that over the past months, payments are being made later and later. “I never wuk no part of the country yet and getting pay (so late),” one employee said. “Nobody ain looking into this budday,” the employee lamented.
“Me ain know what kind of law they bring here…and they ain’t care…and nobody ain’t representing we,” one said. “Is just that people ain’t got a choice and we ain got nobody to represent we…we gah live,” one said in explaining why they chose to remain. “If you go to anybody to talk about it…we ain getting no results…you gah try to hold on to yuh wuk and geh a dollar to help you and your family live,” one said.
It was also noted that some of the lower-level employees who have come from China are also being treated in a similar way to the locals. “Nuff pressure them going through…you could see it budday,” one employee related.
Baishanlin has come under intense examination for failing to establish wood processing facilities while all the time engaged in the export of logs. Both Baishanlin and the government have said that its log exports are within allowable limits and there are no illegalities. These statements have however been met with great skepticism. Baishanlin has issued press releases but has not answered questions from the media.
Baishanlin and the government face a series of unanswered questions over its operations here. Stakeholders, including the parliamentary majority opposition have called for the foreign direct investment contract with Baishanlin to be made public. No answer has yet been forthcoming on who crafted this agreement and on its availability.
The legality of Baishanlin’s landlording arrangement with a series of other forest concessionaires has been queried as the law that would cover this was brought into force long after this arrangement had begun. Logs have still however been drawn from various concessions.
Though it has been here since 2007 and benefited from tax concessions, there is no sign of any progress towards value-added processing.
Most of its infrastructure which has been drawn to the attention of the public by the media seems geared towards logging and shipping. Stakeholders have questioned the justification for the tax concessions which were granted to it earlier.
There are also questions about the number of Guyanese who have been employed by Baishanlin versus the importation of Chinese labour for a variety of jobs that can be taken on by locals.
Questions have also been raised about Baishanlin’s connections with the government and its regulatory agencies. Baishanlin has built a parking lot for the Guyana Revenue Authority along the Lamaha Street embankment in what has been deemed an unacceptable arrangement.
The company has also snapped up real estate including the Casique building near the Providence Stadium which was intended to be a hotel for the 2007 Cricket World Cup but was not finished in time. It had languished until this year when Baishanlin stepped in.
Baishanlin has applied to the Guyana Forestry Commission to log in its own concessions along several rivers. This application is being considered. It is also eying expansion into a number of other areas including mining.
Indian timber company Vaitarna is also facing a series of similar questions as its value-added promises have not been fulfilled.