The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU) is considering legal action on behalf of about 375 Wales Estate cane-cutters and cane transporters who it says are being denied severance payments by the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo).
It is “illegal for the workers to be denied their severance pay… GuySuCo is flouting the law regarding the 10-mile radius… That is a burning issue for GAWU,” GAWU President Komal Chand told Stabroek News.
He explained that when the workers become redundant at an estate and the closest alternative location for employment is more than 10 miles away, the workers are entitled to severance payments.
GuySuCo has offered jobs to the Wales workers at the Uitvlugt estate but according to Chand, they have refused because the distance from Wales is about 32 miles, including to the cultivation.
“You cannot force workers to go more than 10 miles away… This is forced labour and ought not to be allowed by this government,” he said.
GuySuCo has said that its intention is to keep the workers on the payroll and ensure that they would have continuous employment because they [workers] had expressed concerns about losing their jobs.
It said too that if they pay the workers then their services would be severed and they can no longer take up jobs at Uitvlugt.
“The point is that they [GuySuCo] have already done the damage by taking away the jobs from the workers. The bulk of the workers are already on the breadline and what GuySuCo is doing is illegal…,” Chand, however, argued.
According to him, even if the workers are paid and jobs are available at any estate, they cannot be discriminated against.
The Agriculture Ministry, in a statement issued last week, denied that any worker was owed severance payments.
“The Ministry of Agriculture wishes to reiterate that GuySuCo has advised that ALL the workers whose jobs had become redundant had been paid their severance in full,” it said, while charging that recent protests by workers was “politically instigated.”
The statement said the demand for severance was “most unreasonable,” while noting that extensive efforts were made to ensure continued employment of the Wales workers at Uitvlugt and this was successfully achieved.
Toward this end, it added that transportation was being fully provided to Uitvlugt from the West Bank Demerara and back and GuySuCo has stated that workers were not responsible for providing their own transportation.
“The Ministry of Agriculture calls on the union leaders and their political handlers to act responsibly and not to instigate and misguide workers into manufacturing unrealistic and unreasonable demands. There is no option for workers who were offered alternative employment to now make demands for severance when no such offer is on the table and there is full and secure employment for them at Uitvlugt,” it added.
The corporation had also said that it intends to increase the production of sugar at Uitvlugt from 20,000 tonnes to 40,000 tonnes and would require the services of the workers.
However, Chand was not too optimistic that the Uitvlugt estate has the capacity to produce that amount of sugar.
He said they would have to rely on cane from the private cane farmers from Wales but the road to transport the cane from there has not yet been built.
The cane-cutters and cane transporters are determined to be paid and have held protests in front of the Wales estate, the Ministry of Presidency and GuySuCo’s head office. A public meeting was also held on Tuesday regarding the issue. Chand told the workers at the meeting at Patentia that they would stand together to ensure that their rights are not violated.
Also attending the meeting, which started at 5 pm and ended at 7 pm, were some of the spouses of the workers and shop owners.
Chand also spoke about the lack of consultations with the workers by government officials regarding their plans to close the estate as well as their refusal to meet with the workers after.
General Secretary of GAWU, Seepaul Narine also addressed the workers, as well as Leo Alleyne, a field foreman. The workers also were told that GuySuCo cannot force them to work at Uitvlugt against their will.
Chand told this newspaper that he foresees GuySuCo’s plans to diversify into “other crops [to be] a failure. They have tested similar ventures in the past” but it did not work. They [GuySuCo] promised to have rice from this crop but there is nothing up to now…”
Apart from that meeting, field workers from the Uitvlugt estate held a strike in solidarity with their counterparts, while the workers from the East Demerara struck last week to show support.
The workers had stated that they had indeed expressed concerns about losing their jobs at Wales and they tried to get the attention of the government to keep the estate in operation.
Rickey Rambeer, GAWU’s Field Secretary at the Wales and Uitvlugt estates, acknowledged that the solidarity strike at the estate would affect production at Uitvlugt because a lot of cane that was supposed to be picked up on Tuesday was burnt and left in the field.
According to Chand, there were about 1,700 workers at Wales but about 75 were managerial and senior security personnel who were not unionised.
The National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE) was responsible for 50 clerical staff, while the workers from the field and factory were covered under GAWU.
He said that workers from the office and factory have been given their one-month notice of the estate’s closure and would receive their normal salary for the month. At the end of the one-month, they would get severance payments.
Some of the workers, including koker attendants, persons who are responsible for removing weed from the canals and some mechanical tillage, electrical workshop and power house staff, have been retained.
Chand said that 104 workers were supposed to receive severance payments last year but 10 changed their minds and 94 ended up being paid in October.
This was following an injunction that GAWU secured against GuySuCo to ensure it was consulted when the corporation engaged the workers in discussion regarding severance payments or transfers. GAWU argued that this was in keeping with the Termination of Employment & Severance Pay Act. Justice Brassington Reynolds ruled in favour of GAWU and GuySuCo agreed to include the union in further discussions.
Before that, Chand said, GuySuCo had severed 70 workers who were said to be temporarily employed.
Forty-two workers have accepted jobs at Uitvlugt and Chand said these comprise mainly young people with limited service who would not have been entitled to a substantial severance package.