The Government of Guyana and BCGI’s Russian management

The disclosure late last week that Cabinet will now be contemplating the goings-on at the operations of the majority RUSAL-owned Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc (BCGI) is as good an example as one would find of feverishly seeking the close the stable gates long after the horses have bolted leaving in their wake a trail of mayhem and destruction.

First, the previous political administration spent more than a decade indulging the excesses of the Russian management of the company, not least its fiercely anti-trade union posture and its open declaration that it was not prepared to engage the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers’ Union (GB&GWU) as the workers’ representative. Truth be told, the previous government provided every indication that it was determined to endure the excesses of the Russian management of the company purely for the sake of retaining the investment.

All of this occurred, of course, in an environment where the decline in organizing skills and the loss of focus by the trade unions had meant that the GB&GWU, and, arguably, the trade union movement as a whole, had lost traction amongst the workers and had become underequipped to respond to the antiunion posture that manifested itself amongst some of the foreign entities that had come to Guyana looking for investment opportunities. RUSAL has turned out to be the worst of the anti-union investors.

Perhaps even more than the trade unions, government was culpable in this situation. It appeared that the political administration had itself lost sight of its obligation to defend the Constitution of the country and to insist that our Russian guests live by the laws of the land, particularly as those relate to the right of workers to become members of a trade union of their choice. The Russian management of BCGI, incidentally, prosecuted their reign of contempt for the country’s labour laws under the watch of a local consultant/advisor who, perhaps more than anyone else, is familiar with those laws. Here it should be stated that a feature of the operations of BCGI is a management regime in which no Guyanese possesses even a modicum of real authority as far as decision-making is concerned. The Russians control everything.

Under the watch of the previous political administration and in the face of the admittedly limited efforts by the GB&GWU to focus public and political attention on the situation, the Russian management of BCGI persisted in its excesses, which, at times, extended into the realm of the physical abuse of workers. This newspaper has been covering the concerns of the BCGI workers for some time now and it has to be said that some of those workers ran considerable risks and demonstrated a great deal of courage in their efforts to get information to us on what was happening at the workplace.

Prior to assuming office the APNU+AFC coalition had sought, both inside and outside of the National Assembly, to give support to the union in its quest to have its status as the legitimate workers’ representative restored. Nothing, however, moved the then political administration to read a riot act against the anti-union posture of the BCGI management. It was, it seems, a matter of the government of the day having made a decision that the survival of an expatriate investment that was making only a marginal contribution to the country’s economy was more important than the defence of the country’s constitution and of workers’ rights.

Enter the APNU+AFC administration, its first six months in office seemingly reflecting evidence of a militant determination to reverse the excesses of workplace regimes that had posed so many hardships for workers. In the particular case of BCGI, a visit to the company’s operations by the then Minister in the Ministry of Social Protection Simona Broomes late last year resulted in the release of a scathing report from the ministry asserting that the standards and value systems of the company in key areas of employer/employee relations, including respect for workers’ rights and occupational safety and health, were “unacceptable by any measure.”

So pointed in its condemnation of what obtained at BCGI was that no reasonable authority could afford to ignore it. The report outlined a range of humanitarian infractions on the part of the Russian management including the compulsoriness of overtime work, resistance to which could lead to dismissal and the harsh penalization of sick workers for staying off the job despite the fact that they would have submitted medical certificates.

Truth be told these were concerns that the ministry and the Government of Guyana could not afford to ignore; and yet, that is exactly what happened. By January 2016, the reassignment of the minister and the falling away of the new-found official assertiveness in matters pertaining to workers’ rights had meant that BCGI had once again gotten away with its excesses. Now, it seems, the government may have finally made up its mind to engage the Russians on the matter of their excesses, though an argument can be made for asserting that what obtains at this time is a face-saving initiative in what, for the administration, is a considerably embarrassing situation. Last week’s announcement that Cabinet, finally, will occupy itself with the issue of BCGI comes in the wake of the company’s outrageous disrespect for the authority of the government by neglecting, without excuse or apparent reason to respond positively to a summons by Social Protection Minister Volda Lawrence. Surely, that is a measure of the level of respect which the Russians at BCGI have for the Government of Guyana.

But what is at stake here is much more than official pride. By the time this editorial is read Cabinet may well have discussed the BCGI issue though one wonders aloud as to whether those discussions would have taken account of the aforementioned report itemizing the excesses of the Russians. We will have to wait and see though, having regard to all that the workers have had to endure at BCGI over the years, it is to the Government of Guyana that we must look for a solution.

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