United labour leaders yesterday urged the APNU+AFC administration to deliver on promises to unions and to act to reverse the decline of the economy, while the government’s representative argued that some progress has been made.
The call was made as for the second straight year, one rally, organised by the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) and the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG), was held in observance of Labour Day.
Hundreds of workers, including some from Berbice and other parts of the country, marched around the city before congregating at the National Park for the rally, which was held under the theme “Organising – Necessary Prerequisite in Building a Strong United Union Movement.”
Among those addressing the gathering were General Secretary of the GTUC Lincoln Lewis; First Vice President of FITUG, Komal Chand; Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman, who represented President David Granger; Minister of Social Protection Amna Ally; President of the GTUC Coretta McDonald; and Gail Teixeira, who represented Leader of the Opposition Bharrat Jagdeo.
Lewis, in his address, noted that President Granger, both as the previous opposition leader and current head of state, had called for a united trade union movement, which made yesterday’s show of unity possible.
However, he said more important than physical unity was unity in purpose. “Therefore it is for the trade union movement to continue its quest for deepening relationships and forging that unity of purpose that at times evade us. That unity that we advocate is premised on safeguarding and protecting human rights and dignity, equal pay, better conditions for workers, safe environment, respect for the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining and good governance,” he emphasised.
He urged workers to remain constant in the recognition that theirs is a right to struggle and to demand and to ensure that all the achievements are safeguarded. “We the workers must remain constant regardless of who is in or out of power. We have to keep our voices united and resolutely on course. We have to keep our eyes on the prize. The politicians don’t grant us any favours. You elected them and they are entrusted with the responsibility to work for all not only the elites at the top,” he said.
Towards this end, Lewis said the unified movement was calling on President Granger to honour a letter that was sent to him since September last year and in which the united trade unions requested an engagement, in keeping with their constitutional responsibilities.
Granger has said that the unions should engage with the Ministry of Social Protection before seeking an audience with him.
Among the issues that prompted the request for engagement was the contention by the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) that the principles guiding Collective Bargaining were not being upheld and Lewis yesterday said there was a unified call for him to restore collective bargaining in the public sector and return the agency shop for the public service unions. “These were the things undermined by the previous government that President Granger would have condemned; indicating that under his stewardship things will be different. Our unified voices are today raised calling for these changes to be manifest,” he added.
Lewis also called on the government to move to resolve all outstanding matters between the Bauxite Company of Guyana Incorporated (BCGI) and the Guyana Bauxite & General Workers Union (GB&GWU), which he dubbed “the longest running struggle” where a foreign force is being allowed to threaten the nation’s sovereignty. He added that the Trade Union Recognition Act says once a bargaining agreement exists, an employer is bound to treat with the union and negotiate in good faith and he stressed that this must be respected for all unions across the board.
He said GTUC acknowledged a recent letter sent by the Ministry of Social Protection to the BCGI and GB&GWU to come to the bargaining table, but added that it would not rest its calls for justice until “real” justice is attained.
Lewis ended his address with a call by the united movement for President Granger to re-establish a Ministry of Labour, which he said is crucial for shaping and executing labour policies that affect all workers, past, present and potential. “Trust that these requests today will not be a challenge for the President given his stated commitment and desire for trade union unity, and that which he has sought and achieved here today. If they are still friends of the trade union movement as they were prior to 2015, they must prove it,” he said, while adding that the unions speak with one voice on the issues.
In his address, Chand said he too was pleased that his year’s observances are again characterised by unity. “In the recent months, we have seen improved collaboration and cooperation among our bodies. This is indeed a positive development. But, at the same time, we of the FITUG recognise that we still have a long road to traverse. Our celebration today, we hold, is another pinnacle along that winding road,” he said, before lamenting the current state of the economy.
He argued that “Workers Day 2017 greets the Guyanese working people with rising challenges, mounting pressure, and burdens piled on our already overburdened backs. It is disheartening for us of FITUG to record that the promise of a ‘Good Life’ has so quickly been replaced with a depressing state-of-affairs.”
Chand charged that the economy is in a tailspin. He said that official statistics indicate that nearly all of the productive sectors are seeing declining performances, foreign exchange inflows are falling and there is the steady devaluation of the Guyana dollar.
He pointed out that the working people and their families are the hardest hit victims, facing a steep cost-of-living while there is a reduction of business activities, leading to retrenchments.
He said FITUG sees the urgent need for the governing authorities to take measures to stop the economic decline, prevent the drop in the people’s living standards, save workers jobs, stimulate the economy and put the country back on the track of development.
He also urged that the executive rescind the measures which are pushing many Guyanese into an impoverished state and which are badly hurting the people, especially the poor and working-people of the country.
Chand, who is the president of the Guyana Agricultural & General Workers’ Union (GAWU), also addressed the state of the sugar industry and added that while government officials are claiming that “sugar is too big to fail” and that the industry “will never die,” their actions are “not in sync” with their words. “The sad and disturbing reality, at this time, is that the government seems intent on pushing thousands of ordinary, hardworking, decent Guyanese into a life of desperation and possibly depravity,” he said before adding that the cutting down of the industry through estate closures and sell-out is not the direction that the country should be pursuing, especially given the country’s serious economic troubles.
Chand also mentioned that just a few days ago GAWU was denied permission to conduct a public march, which he said is tantamount to a denial of the inalienable and constitutional rights and an affront to freedom of expression.
Teixeira later also highlighted some of the shortcomings of the government in relations to the slowing down of the economy. But as she spoke, some members of the audience started heckling her, saying “How long more that story got? We hungry!” They also started clapping and singing the union anthem “Solidarity Forever” in an effort to drown out her voice.
Some GAWU members used the rally to protest the closure of sugar estates and the possible selling of the Skeldon estate.
They displayed banners, some of which read “Sell out of one estate, closure of three, a betrayal by APNU/AFC,” “Stop the plundering and looting of our resources by foreigners,” “Non-sugar diversification, an illusion” and “We say: no sell out of Skeldon sugar land.”
There was also a banner displayed by one set of workers, calling on the government to “Remove VAT on electricity and water.”
‘A grand start’
Meanwhile, Minister of Natural Resources Raphael Trotman, in his address, argued that the current government has “restored collective bargaining,” which he noted had been relegated to the doldrums for more than two decades, and has made some gains. “And even though enough gains have not been secured, through that medium we can say that we are off on a grand start,” he added.
Trotman also highlighted that when the government took office, the minimum wage in the public service was $42,703 per month and it is now $55,000 per month, representing an increase of almost 30 per cent.
Trotman said too that the non-unionised private sector employees enjoyed an increase of 26 percent, which is the “highest ever in the history of our county for that category of workers, who are now paid a minimum of $255 per hour.”
He also boasted about the 45 per cent increase for senior citizens’ pension, which is now $19,000 per month.
The minister also noted that government has been “saddled with the herculean task” of putting in place the policies and programmes which are imbued with the capacity to mitigate, alleviate and liberate workers from the stress and distress to which they were condemned for more than two decades.
For example, he said, the Occupational Safety and Health Act provides for the establishment of a National Advisory Council on matters pertaining to Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH), which has among its mandates the task of advising the ministers on policy guidelines for the benefits of workers in particular and the nation as a whole.
He claimed that the committee did not function for several years, which he described as “superlative neglect” and an abandonment of the rights and interest of the working classes of this nation. He added that the current government quickly appointed a NACOSH, which has so far been functioning creditably and has “contributed significantly” to the crafting of a New Decent Work Country Programme for Guyana
He also spoke of the work that is being done by the National Tripartite Committee, in which he said the major stakeholders are fully involved and which he credited for the new minimum wage for the private sector.
He mentioned too that the government has established an Industrial Tribunal, whose function would include the speedy resolution of industrial differences, resulting in justice for workers, trade unions, employers and even government itself.
Ally, who has responsibility for labour as Minister of Social Protection, was not listed on the programme to speak. However, before her address, McDonald invited the minister to the podium.
She told the gathering that her ministry is “cognisant of the struggles of all workers” and was with them. “I am sure that with time, the solutions would come because this is a caring government and this government will not let you down,” she added.
Change of attitude
McDonald reminded the other trade union leaders that they should seek to display the characteristics that are worthy of a leader and be ready to respond to their members when they are called upon.
She told them too that if they want to remain relevant, effective and efficient, they will have to have a change of attitude, accountability, commitment and selfless service. She also demanded that programmes be put in place which will offer skills to empower members, thus equipping them with the necessary tools to function as trade unionists and as professionals.
She told the general membership, “We cannot overemphasise your importance and the need to ensure that you are given your due. I am and will always be proud of your efforts, your struggles and the length you go to ensure the wheels of production keep turning.”
Karen Vansluytman-Corbin, of the Women’s Advisory Council, said she hoped that genuine efforts are being made to achieve a united and strong trade union movement.
She urged the leaders not to pretend to be striving for unity and said whatever is achieved must be in the best interest of the workers.
She added that in keeping with the theme of the rally, organisation is important and necessary to ensure that there is a strong and united movement.
Women, she added, can use organising to advocate strong policies to be implemented, not only to empower them but to ensure the many social issues affecting them are dealt with in a holistic manner.
She also noted that some of the women had organised and had held a “ballot box vigil for several nights now to ensure ballot box security. But this time it is certainly a necessary prerequisite to ensure that the democratic process is observed and respected.” She was referring to the acrimonious GPSU elections.
Latoya Drakes, a youth representative of FITUG, in her remarks said that those who are tasked with “making our economy work, must address the question of job creation and at the same time seek to prevent the closure of enterprises which only aggravates unemployment situations.”
She extended solidarity to the youth who are struggling for decent jobs, affordable and free education, a just and crime-free society and a promising future.