Sugar unions renew plea against closure of Wales

-say gov’t still to come up with alternatives

As the time draws nearer for the Wales estate to face closure, the three sugar unions yesterday again appealed to the government and GuySuCo to rescind this decision and they also contended that no alternative had yet been presented to the hundreds of workers who could soon be without jobs.

At a joint press conference yesterday, the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE), and the Guyana Labour Union (GLU) said they considered it incumbent to once more warn of the “clearly ill-considered and unwise decision” to end cane operations at Wales.

Head of GAWU Komal Chand told the media that the employment future of hundreds of workers is uncertain, as well as the wellbeing of their families and their children’s education.

From left are Aslim Singh and Komal Chand, of GAWU, NAACIE General Secretary Kenneth Joseph and GAWU General Secretary Seepaul Narine
From left are Aslim Singh and Komal Chand, of GAWU, NAACIE General Secretary Kenneth Joseph and GAWU General Secretary Seepaul Narine

“So far, no minister of the government or the cabinet has interfaced with the workers… I want to recall that the President [David Granger], earlier this year, alluded to the intention of the government of having interaction with the workers… But that hasn’t happened,” he added. Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo did meet with a delegation of workers in July to address concerns over severance payments.

The unions yesterday said they would prefer that the decision to close the estate be rescinded, but with the caveat that if government is still bent on that position, the life of the estate should be extended to allow ventures to be fully announced and discussed.

Chanda said this would “give the workers an opportunity to at least to earn until such development, whether it takes them into another crop next year or two other crops.”

Chand also told the media that this crop was scheduled to finish in October but it has been extended until the third week in December, ending the 24th.

About 90 workers, out of a workforce of 1,700, eventually received their severance pay in September. It had been promised to them since April.

The unions, however, lamented that the fate of the other workers remain unknown and they are apprehensive in terms of their severance pay, which depends on their years of service. Some of the workers have been absorbed at the Uitvlugt estate on the West Coast of Demerara, 22 miles way, in the mechanical tillage and other departments.

The unions, in a joint statement, said it is indeed regrettable that the government and GuySuCo is “not listening to the anxious cries of many of our citizens and rescind the infamous decision.”

“To compound the callousness of the decision-makers, it must be noted that they have not even bothered to pursue any known study to ascertain the likely impact and to consider alleviation measures although some 10 months have elapsed since the decision (to close Wales) was leaked in the Guyana Times,” they added.

According to Chand, Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder had mentioned that he had preferred to “embargo the decision and announce it at a later time.”

With regards to GuySuCo leasing land at Wales to the workers to cultivate, Chand said they [workers] are “strangers to these situations and we must be thankful to the media to ask useful questions….” He said too that such official information should have come from the government or GuySuCo.

Justification

He further said, “That is why there is justification to extend the life of the estate as a sugar growing estate and let us get clarity on these matters, consultations from the government, workers and the unions. We heard the other day, the president said he would involve the unions….”

He lamented that the unions should be involved while the government and GuySuCo are preparing their plans so they can tailor them with the suggestions and contributions from the unions and the workers.

In an interview, GuySuCo Chairman Dr Clive Thomas told Stabroek News that a member of the GAWU is sitting on the GuySuCo board and he is free to participate in the discussions as they continue.

The unions have only heard so far that Wales would be the starting point for the Corporation’s non-sugar ventures. They reminded that similar ventures in the past were met with negative results, while noting that “there has been no published study by the Government or GuySuCo about the potential of the announced ventures” that are being contemplated.

“On this score, we wish to also draw attention to the Economic and Finance Report of the Sugar Commission of Inquiry (CoI) authored by current Chairman of GuySuCo, Professor Clive Thomas who explicitly recommended that the other crops be first pursued outside of GuySuCo lands,” the unions said.

Moreover, the Agricultural Report of the CoI pointed out that the cultivation of other crops will not be able to absorb the displaced labour from the scaling down of cane growing.

When asked by Stabroek News about this, Dr Thomas said that he had made the recommendation that they should start the trials outside of the cane lands but that the board has decided otherwise.

Skeldon Estate

In response to a question about the apparent intention of GuySuCo to sell the Skeldon estate with its costly, troubled factory, Chand said the news is “strange in the sense that there has been no discussion with the workers and it would have serious implications.”

“If you are reprivatizing that estate or divesting it, an evaluation would have to be done on the assets, the cost and the implications for the workers,” he added.

He questioned if workers would have continuous employment when the new owner takes over and the timeframe of the exercise the government is contemplating with respect to the divestment. Divesting the estate, he said, is a move in the wrong direction. The estate is important for the recovery of the other estates and the sustainability of GuySuCo, the GAWU Head contended.

He said too that the two turbines that produce electricity are very significant assets and wondered if they would be sold as well with the factory.

He also questioned what would be the position with the hectares of land, saying that “if the government insists on its move, it owes the nation, the people, the union, the sugar workers a transparent arrangement and proper procedures….”

Meanwhile, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG) yesterday added its voice to GAWU’s call against any attempt to dispose of the Skeldon factory.

“FITUG notes the potential dire effect on the employees’ lives of this unnecessary plan to sell an important national asset. Any sale of the Skeldon facility at this time would certainly impact negatively on the entire industry, which can only aggravate the country’s economic plight. The factory and the estate’s extensive and rich land-holding have the potential to contribute to GuySuCo’s recovery and, indeed the nation’s economy,” it said in a statement.

FITUG said it sees much sense in the case made by GAWU for the retention, refurbishment and sustained technical maintenance of the flagship Skeldon estate. It noted that recent praise about the factory’s improved production performance coming from GuySuCo’s Chairman and the Agriculture Minister need to be emphasized, while the corporation’s last annual report and the recommendations from the government-appointed Commission of Inquiry into the industry must not be swept under the carpet.

FITUG also highlighted concerns about a lack of transparency in the proposed “sale scheme,” while noting there has been no consultation with the workers or their union. It added that credible information revealed that at the level of GuySuCo’s Board of Directors, the matter was not discussed and the relevant decisions seem to be limited to a select few. In light of this, it emphasized that the industry and its many components are the nation’s assets and the administrations of GuySuCo and the government should not forget this.

“FITUG urges the Government to tread warily, re-think hasty decisions and consult every stakeholder, including the unions and the political opposition on this ‘sale of Skeldon’ which, we firmly believe, will be disastrous,” it added, while adding that “a high-handed callous treatment of workers and their Unions” is evidence and this is a direction that is not leading to a hopeful future.

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