The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) yesterday staged a massive protest against the planned privatisation of the Skeldon Estate that drew support from not only sugar workers and their families but also business owners and vendors who suspended their operations in a show of solidarity.
The protestors marched from the Skeldon Estate to the National Insurance Scheme office, in Springlands and back to Republic Square, Springlands, where various speakers warned of the impact of the planned privatisation and emphasised the need for solidarity.
Most businesses in Springlands yesterday closed their doors and vendors of the Skeldon Market refused to sell to show their solidarity to workers. “See how it look today? Dead? Dead? So it gon’ look when them close sugar,” a resident told Stabroek News.
Among those who addressed the protestors were GAWU President Komal Chand, GAWU’s General Secretary Seepaul Narine, Region Six Chairman David Armogan, Mayor of Corriverton Krishnand Jaichand, former Mayor of Corriverton Ganesh Gangadin, and PPP/C Member of Parliament Dr Vishwa Mahadeo.
Chand admitted that sugar is going through “a bad patch” but questioned why the government’s only solutions are to privatise and close estates. He further accused the government of trying to “frighten” the people by putting out large figures and claiming that the sugar industry is a burden on them.
According to him, it is not the first time that the sugar industry is taking a beating and he pointed out that past leaders had recognised its importance to the economy and plans were put in place to improve and return the industry to a profitable state. “Today we have a government, a president, who is not mindful about the people,” he said.
Chand added that while the president and prime minister speak about “a good life” for all Guyanese, they “are bringing such a harm to the people.” “What will be your future if we allow them to sell out Skeldon Estate?” he questioned.
He further explained that while buyers are lining up to purchase the Skeldon Estate, it is hard to believe that the new owners will have the workers’ best interests at heart.
It was mentioned several times by various speakers at the protest that persons are mostly interested in purchasing the Skeldon Estate so as to get ownership of the co-generation Plant.
“They want to give away our co-gen and lands for cheap price,” Chand said. “We cannot allow them to do that.”
Chand told the protestors that he believed solidarity would win the fight and he said he was pleased that businesses were standing with the sugar workers. He said the number of protesters from different backgrounds and ethnicities must increase and they must stand together so that the government will get the message.
Armogan, during his address, questioned whether the investments needed for GuySuCo are really too much. “They are saying that every year they have to plough into GuySuCo about $9 billion to keep it afloat. If you look at $9 billion, it is just about 1.5% of our GDP and just about 3.6% of our national budget,” he said. “Is that too much to keep 60,000 people going? Definitely not,” he added.
According to Armogan, if the government is to invest in the sugar industry and keep the estates open, the country will benefit in the long term as when citizens earn a wage, the money in turn circulates and the government benefits from taxes.
Armogan also criticised GuySuCo’s management committee, which he said should be dissolved and replaced immediately. “The people who are sitting in Georgetown need to come off their high horses and get into the field. They got to ensure our agronomic practices are better and production and productivity must increase,” he said.
He also touted the benefits of the Skeldon co-generation plant, which he also said is what is attracting prospective buyers. “It can generate about $8 billion by selling current to GPL. They are not going to tell you that. That is why you have people interested in buying Skeldon Estate. They don’t want the estate, they want the co-gen,” he opined.
Mayor of Corriverton Krishnand Jaichand said that as mayor of the town he was concerned about the impact privatisation will have on the local economy. He also opined that GuySuCo can be viable again. “If we are to utilise the co-generation [plant] at Skeldon, the estate can sustain itself,” he argued as he pleaded with the government to utilise the co-generation plant, while pledging the support of the private sector in the Upper Corentyne Area.
Mahadeo lamented that the government is making decisions without consulting the workers, who will be affected by the closure of estates and privatisation.
He also noted that with the closure of estates, the public hospitals that are constantly out of drugs will see much more traffic, since workers and their families who would have sought medical assistance at the estate dispensaries will be visiting.
A few of the speakers charged that the government is exhibiting a “dictatorship” style by making such decisions without consulting the people and this accusation saw the protestors clapping and shouting in agreement.
Workers attached to the Skeldon Estate told Stabroek News that they are against privatisation because there is no certainty that the buyer will keep the sugar workers on the payroll. While urging that government reconsider its plans for the estate, they stressed that they are not willing to gamble away the livelihoods of both them and their families.
Speakers at the protest also highlighted how many persons would be affected by the decision to privatise, including the sugar workers and their families, businesses, fishermen, farmers, public transport operators, and labourers.
Sandy, one of the vendors of the Skeldon Market who was present at the protest, stressed that she will be affected by the closure of the estates, since most of her customers are sugar workers. “When you a sell ten bag cabbage, then you go barely sell half bag. Wah the farmers them go do and who abie go sell give? she asked. “We got to stand up for abie right,” she added.