The much-anticipated findings and recommendations of the GuySuCo Commission of Inquiry (COI), as well as government’s intentions for the industry, will soon be made public. It is hoped that the COI will provide a set of feasible recommendations for making the industry economically sustainable, and that all stakeholders, trade unions included, will be on board to help make them work.
There are many reasons why sugar remains a vital industry for Guyana. The limited rural economic development that has taken place over the past 2-3 decades means that a large portion of the rural, coastal population still depends heavily upon sugar, and hence this avenue for employment must be kept open. Secondly, sugar workers have in the main, been an impoverished class in Guyana, and therefore any decision that can negatively impact their livelihoods will push a large section of our society further into poverty. At the national level, sugar is still a major earner of foreign exchange, the loss of which can trigger high levels of inflation and more hardships.
Any future decisions about sugar will focus heavily on the issues surrounding retention and effective use of labour. This is expected because there are in excess of 16,000 employees and thousands more indirect beneficiaries whose livelihoods depend upon the industry’s continued existence. Consideration about the future of sugar workers can be seen as a coin: on one side their collective welfare is of critical importance, and on the other side their future role in developing the industry must be carefully thought out, given the current labour dynamics.
On one hand, we must accept that contextually a lot has changed in the sugar industry locally and globally, especially during the past decade. First, the global demand for cane sugar and the price that markets are willing to pay have both plummeted, reducing revenues. Secondly, the sugar industry is no longer a premium employer for unskilled labour. A whole generation has grown up not wanting anything to do with sugar, regarding it as just too much hard work. Age-profiles of the industry’s workers will indicate that much of the work is being done by an aging workforce, among whom natural attrition is high. Any possibility of labour displacement will affect these persons the most. Third, inflation has diminished the purchasing power of earnings in the sugar industry. This is compounded by seasonality in employment and remuneration, which affects workers’ abilities to save and enjoy a good standard of living.
On the other hand, we must also consider the work ethic, motivation and commitment of the sugar workers themselves. Sadly, there are still many persons in the sugar industry who do not appreciate the gravity of the situation that both GuySuCo and the government are faced with at this time. They are yet to recognize that they are integrally part of the problems facing the industry, as well as a key consideration in any solution that may be arrived at.
The ethical values of workers in the sugar industry have changed over time, much the same as societal values have changed. The sugar worker of today is a completely different person from the one who existed before, and therefore cannot be regarded with the same expectations as one may have had decades ago. Today’s worker is a rather detached person, interested mainly in earning a quick dollar for a minimum of effort, and not overly concerned about the good of GuySuCo. Amongst today’s workers there is not much regard for authority, discipline, team work or even care for the organization’s property. Workers of years ago showed a higher level of commitment, dedication and genuine concern for the well-being of the estates. Not so today.
The quality of leadership at the frontline also leaves much to be desired, as all seem to regard themselves as being in the same boat. Managing labour productivity, work standards, representing GuySuCo’s interests and demanding what is due to the company, all pose serious challenges for those at the supervisory level. Today’s work ethic seems to have done away with the barriers that allowed for distance and control, to the extent that there are frightening levels of familiarity and fraternity between the ordinary workers and their superiors. This puts in jeopardy the functionality of command chains, and exposes the company to even greater risk for leakages, via collusion.
Today’s managers spend more of their time dealing with labour-related problems than pursuing innovative practices that can benefit the industry. For successive years, estates could not achieve their annual programmes while expenditure continued to climb. Management just did not have, and still does not get the full support of its workers, in seeing the problems the same way, and addressing them as they ought to.
It is worthwhile at this point to note that the small percentage of the sugar industry that is in private hands, is not beset by the foregoing problems, but is actually making substantial progress. Maybe the COI was onto something when they urged that some form of privatisation be pursued.
This shift in workers’ attitude and commitment undoubtedly has links to the militancy of their trade union, and the past gains the union would have won for them. Could it be that by being a little too accommodating of union demands, even when it could not afford to do so, the sugar industry has actually become the victim of the very people it serves?
Many are optimistic that GuySuCo can survive, albeit with certain meaningful changes which will be necessary if the industry is to overcome the many challenges that exist. Continuing the current state of affairs is unsustainable, and is even somewhat unfair to the rest of the country.