Cane-cutters and cane transporters of the Wales estate and their families and workers from the Enmore estate yesterday staged picketing exercises in front of the Ministry of the Presidency and Parliament building over severance payments and the end of sugar operations at the West Bank Demerara estate.
The APNU+AFC government announced the closure of sugar operations at the Wales estate in January last year and it ended there when the last bundle of cane was lifted in December.
And workers from the Enmore estate said although they have not been told officially about the closure, they want government to reconsider the reported decision to shut their estate.
Approximately 375 Wales workers are demanding their severance payments but the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) has offered them jobs at the Uitvlugt estate instead.
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.
They have refused on the grounds that if the closest estate is located more than 10 miles away they must be paid severance. They argued that the distance from Wales to the Uitvlugt estate and the cultivation is 32 miles.
Officials of the Guyana Agricultural & General Workers’ Union (GAWU) were also part of the exercise as well as a few members of parliament (MPs) from the opposition People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C).
The MPs, including, Drs. Frank Anthony and Vindhya Persaud, Clement Rohee, Nigel Dharamlall and Indra Chandarpal displayed placards as they gave support to the protesters just before yesterday’s session in the National Assembly began.
The union, in a release reiterated that GuySuCo’s “forceful demand for the workers to take up work at Uitvlugt Estate, some 22 miles away from Wales, is not in keeping with the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act (TESPA).”
It quoted Section 21(4)(b) of the Act, which advises that “an employer is required to provide workers with their severance payments if the employer is unable to provide a similar job ‘at the same place of employment or within a radius of ten (10) miles therefrom under no less favourable conditions than those …employees enjoyed immediately prior to the termination’.”
Ally Rasheed, a cane-cutter of Belle West said he has not earned since he collected his last wage from the estate in December and was finding it difficult to maintain his family. “We barely getting one meal per day but some people don’t get none,” he said.
A father of four, he said he has been unable to send two of his four children, ages 10 and 13-years-old to school at Endeavour for about one month now. He can only afford to send the four and five-year-olds to school because their transportation costs less.
He said since he heard about the closure he has been looking for another job but has had no luck so far. He has decided not to take the job at Uitvlugt because it is too far and would not be happy with that arrangement. He prefers to be paid his severance instead.
His brother, Salim Rasheed worked as a foreman at the estate and he was happy to receive his severance payments. He has used some of the money to repair his house which was in a deplorable condition.
In the meantime he is searching desperately for a job so he can take care of his wife and four children, whose ages are from two to 14-years-old, but has been unsuccessful so far.
His wife, Nafeeza does domestic work some days but the payment is “very small.” He would also assist her to make dhal puri on weekends but their customers have reduced their orders. He protested in solidarity with the workers who are calling for their severance payments.
The mothers who were out in the picket line with their children, in both rainy and sunny weather conditions, said they were there to highlight how much they were suffering.
A woman who gave her name only as ‘Sabo,’ of Wales said they are barely getting money for food and she also has a lot of expenses to send her 16-year-old daughter to school at L’Aventure.
She said the girl is preparing for the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and has to spend a lot of money at the internet café to do research for assignments and print documents and pictures.
According to her, her daughter has a project to submit and it would cost her more but luckily she gets monetary assistance from her sister and father for the girl.
She said her husband is a cane-cutter and he has not earned since he uplifted his last wage from the estate in December.
“We using the lil savings we had but that would done soon and we don’t know what we would do,” the woman told this newspaper.
She said her 19-year-old daughter has had no luck in finding a job since she completed high school and is assisting her with household chores in the meantime.
Anthony, PPP/C MP told SN that he joined the protest to show solidarity with the workers because the closure would have a devastating impact on about 5000 persons.
He said right now the workers from Wales have no money to support their families and the government has not learned from that and are planning to close more estates.
He lamented that government’s decision to close the estates “certainly cannot work… I’m sure if we sit together we can find a solution… Our ancestors came to Guyana because of sugar.”
He said he understands the plight of the workers because his father was a sugar worker and he grew up on the estate at Enmore.
Rohee said he also offered solidarity to the workers because “I believe a grave injustice was done to them in terms of the attitude of the government to close down these two estates. So I think the workers are very justified in their actions…”
He said on one hand the government is saying that no decision has been made and that they are still having consultations with Jamaica and other sugar producing countries in the Caribbean.
On the other hand, he said, government is saying that the matter is coming to parliament for consideration on a White Paper and are taking steps to close the estates.
Zulficar Mustapha, another PPP/C MP present at the protest, said the workers are venting their frustration because “the government is taking advantage on sugar workers and also rice farmers in this country.”
He said too that “they are taking sugar workers for granted… As a matter of fact, I came from a sugar worker family. My father worked in the sugar industry until he reached pensionable age.” He added: “Government should listen to the sugar workers and grant them their severance pay and ensure that they don’t close any more estates. Many persons would be on the breadline, not only these sugar workers but their families and a number of other people who depend on the sugar industry. We’ve seen the repercussions at Wales already…”
A cane-cutter from the Enmore estate, Roy Dundass said he and his colleagues were protesting the closure of the estate as it is taking bread out of their mouths.
He argued that the sugar industry is the “backbone of the country” and that closing the estate would be a big blow for the workers and would bring hardship to them. He called on government to take that into consideration and keep the estate in operation.
Another worker said he has two children to take care of and was worried about the effects the closure would have on him. He has to spend a lot on transportation and to do assignments at the internet.
He said everyone is aware that 85 percent of the sugar workers are early school leavers and it would be difficult for them to seek any other form of employment.The workers said they were pleading with the government to listen to their cries to keep that estate in operation.
They told SN that they have not been told officially that the estate would be closed but they have been hearing about it in the media.
They have seen how their colleagues at Wales are suffering following the closure there and are fearful about what would happen to them.
The sugar union said too in the release that the Enmore/LBI workers are concerned very much about their and their family’s future in view of a proposal, possibly a decision, to close their Estate and another at year-end.
It said the “workers and the union are staunchly opposed to the closure and sell-out of sugar estates and are committed to resist decisions in this direction. Such a move, we contend, will engender harsh and grave repercussions for the thousands of Guyanese and the scores of communities connected to the sugar estates in question.”
The release added: “The contemplation of enlarging the already sizeable unemployed pool in our country defies logic especially at this time when it is agreed that our economic fortunes are on the decline.”
It said that there is no comprehensive plan, at this time, to address the fallout from sugar estates closure and divestment and that the non-sugar ventures gives very little comfort.
GAWU firmly believes that the “sugar industry has all the possibilities to be placed on a viable and sustainable path.”
It has shared “workable proposals” in this regard but said it seems that the government has not considered it and remains “headstrong on a decision that will harm Guyana and Guyanese for generations to come. At this time, we urge, as we have done before, that we secure our sugar industry for ourselves and our posterity.”