Social Protection Ministry must share blame for impasse at BCGI over refund of overtime taxes – Lewis

-says work stoppage cannot be ruled out

GB&GWU Branch Executive at BCGI: left to right…Leslie Junor (Branch Secretary), Garfield Brutus (Vice President) and Ephraim Velloza, President.

Fresh obstacles that threaten to block an official decision that taxes deducted from payments made to Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc. (BCGI) workers since October 2016 should be restored to them are being blamed by Guyana Trades Union Congress General Secretary, Lincoln Lewis, “in large measure” on the “inclination of the present political administration to allow the Russians to get away with murder in the same way that the previous administration did. I think that we have reached a point where as far as what happens at BCGI is concerned we redirect much of the blame on the Government of Guyana rather than on the Russians,” Lewis told Stabroek Business during a meeting earlier this week.

Late last month it was announced that BCGI had signed on to an agreement allowing for the non- payment of taxes on overtime, a decision that triggered the necessity for a refund to the workers of taxes that were being deducted since October last year. Lewis was at pains to point out that the company’s Russian management’s signing on to the tax free overtime agreement had come only after it had earlier refused to sign the same agreement.

While, under a measure of pressure from the Ministry of Social Protection, the agreement was eventually signed, Stabroek Business has seen a document issued by the BCGI management which is likely to significantly delay full payment of the tax refund. Lewis, who is also General Secretary of the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers’ Union   (GB&GWU) which secured a 90% support in a recent worker representation poll at the BCGI worksite said that he now fears that the company may be seeking to deny workers the refund by delaying it for as long as possible. “In the event that time passes and workers leave the job …they will probably never get their money,” Lewis told this newspaper.

This newspaper has seen a document addressed to “all BCGI’S employees” from the management of the company communicating what the company says is the substance of the outcomes of a December 6th meeting with Guyana Revenue Authority Head Godfrey Statia.  The document detailed what it said was “the final decision of the Government” on the overtime issue, reached “after long and hard negotiations.” It says, first, that from November 1 this year there would be “no deduction to GRA of Tax payable from overtime pay and secondly that in respect of taxes already deducted as of October last year the affected workers will receive “a stage by stage refund” amounting, all told, to $173,l098,397.

Additionally, the BCGI management says in its memorandum that such taxes as have been deducted from the pay period November 1 – November 28 will be refunded to the workers “before the Christmas.”

While Stabroek Business has also seen a Memorandum of Understanding involving the Ministry of Finance, BGGI and the GB&GWU on the issue of the waiving of the overtime that document simply states that “all bauxite workers employed by BCGI” will be exempt from tax on overtime pay.” 

On Monday, Lewis told Stabroek Business that in the matter of the refunds of monies deducted as income tax on overtime it was really a matter of trust. “It seems to me that what would clear up this matter is if the Ministry of Social Protection gets involved again and makes a pronouncement on the payment”, he said.

While BCGI has now signed on to the no-taxation-of-overtime agreement and  Minister in the Ministry of Social Protection Keith Scott had been quoted as saying that the payment would be expedited quickly, BCGI’s statement alludes to “ a stage by stage refund” of the huge retroactive amount of more than $173 million dollars. On Monday, Stabroek Business met with a GB&GWU Branch Management team led by Branch President  Ephraim  Velloza and including Vice President Garfield Brutus and Branch Secretary Leslie Junor when each in turn asserted that the BCGI workers were demanding that the taxes deducted from their overtime be returned to them in a single payment.

With the company indicating that the deducted amounts have already been paid over to the GRA and that it was not in a position to make the payment from its own coffers, the three union officials indicated that the eventuality of a work stoppage, sooner rather than later, cannot be ruled out. 

Lewis, meanwhile, told Stabroek Business that “setting BCGI’s customary unreasonable posture aside” there was also the issue of “official indifference” to be considered. “What is needed is firmness and clarity on this matter. We need to know from GRA what its position is on the monies in question being made available for payment. We also need a firm pronouncement from the Minister on the issue of treating this matter as one of urgency. At the end of the day I fear that once government continues to back away from the Russians – which is what they appear to be doing at this time – the situation for the workers on the site is unlikely to become any better.”

Lewis said that since the poll that sent a message to the BCGI   management about the workers’ preference for the GB&GWU as  their union of choice, the Union has still not been able to benefit from on-site exchanges with either its members or with the company’s management. “It is a very unhealthy situation and here again it is a question of government firmly reminding the BCGI management of its obligation to afford the workers access to a union of their choice as provided for in the constitution of the country.”  

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