Sugar workers ‘collateral damage’ of vindictive politics -Anthony

Dr. Frank Anthony

PPP/C parliamentarian Dr. Frank Anthony on Tuesday lambasted the government for failing sugar workers, saying they have become collateral damage in a “spate of vindictive politics.”

With the support of his fellow opposition parliamentarians, Anthony  told the National Assembly during the budget debate that the government’s assault on the sugar industry continues unabated.

“The government has adopted a narrow-minded approach to sugar; that is, to unilaterally shut major parts of the industry down. In the name of saving a few miserly dollars, thousands of workers will be sacrificed to save the industry. These innocent sugar workers and their families will become collateral damage in a spate of vindictive politics. Instead of helping by lending a hand to the industry, they prefer to [kick] the people and the industry while they are down,” he said.

He added that hundreds of sugar workers have received their Christmas gift from the “Santa coalition,” which has seen them being kicked to the streets to “scrounge for a living” and he questioned whether that was “the good life” promised.

However, Minister of Public Telecommunications Cathy Hughes, who spoke right after Anthony, described the sugar workers as being “dear” to her government, which she said is working assiduously to find solutions. She pointed out that the problems of the industry started 30 to 20 years ago and the successive PPP/C governments did nothing to address them during their time in the office.

Hughes pointed out that since it came into office, the government has aided the sugar corporation with some $32 billion, which works out to just about $1 billion a month. She further noted that when she visited the Wales Estate to listen to the concerns of sugar workers there, one of the burning issues raised by the workers was the fact that their National Insurance Scheme (NIS) contributions were not paid over for about 15 years. Hughes said any government that was not ensuring that the sugar workers’ NIS contributions were paid over was “bad.”

Meanwhile, Anthony also said that while the government is “talking up” the agriculture sector, its actions tells another story as from 2016 to 2017 there was a $1.8 billion cut from the agriculture budget and from 2017 to 2018 it will be further chopped by $2.3 billion. As a result, he said the sector has the distinction of being the only one that has consistently received cuts in the budget allocations under this government. He said he believes this signals the government’s intention to downsize, deemphasise and downgrade agriculture.

‘Gov’t don’t care

On the whole, Anthony called the proposed $267.1 billion 2018 budget lacklustre, saying there is nothing tangible for the people of Guyana.

During his presentation, he also described the Ministry of Public Health as being the leading violator of good tender board procedures and norms.

Nobody, he noted, has been held accountable for the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation’s $605 million emergency purchase of drugs, which was single sourced without permission from the national tender board.

He said the situation is not an isolated incident as the Auditor General’s report cited 71 examples of breaches in the Procurement Act and 82 examples of breaches of the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act. The breaches increased by more than 100% since 2015, he added.

Anthony also touched on the fact that large quantities of drugs have expired even though there have been drug shortages.

Addressing the government’s “fresh approach” of allocating monies for the procurement of drugs in the regions, Anthony said this has seen the monies being returned and the regions being given drugs but never the quantities they requested. This situation has led to consistent shortages of drugs and medical supplies in the regions, he added.

Anthony also took the government to task for not completing projects for which budgetary allocations were approved. He gave the example of the Port Kaituma Hospital Complex, where improvements were expected to be completed in six months. But two years later, he said, this has still not been done. He noted too that a $79.876 million contract for a generator building and a generator at the same hospital was approved in 2015, but the building is still not completed even though the contractor has already been paid $36.4 million.

Other projects for which contractors have received monies but are yet to complete include the construction of an infectious in-patient facility, construction of a mortuary and the construction of a nurses’ and doctors’ quarters, all at Port Kaituma.

“The Ministry of Public Health must explain why these variations in contracts. Why the frontloading of monies to the contractor? Why these projects are still incomplete and why the contract splitting? And why no one is held accountable?” Anthony said.

And while he said the government has regaled the nation about how much equipment it will be buying, Anthony pointed out that there have been persistent reports that instead of new laboratory analysers, second hand items are being purchased, which only work for a while.

He also noted that since 2015, the government received donations of two Computer Tomography (CT) machines, which were earmarked for Bartica and New Amsterdam hospitals. But according to Anthony, the machines were yet to be unpacked and made operational. In 2017, he further said, the government budgeted for a CT machine for the Georgetown Public Hospital but today the machine “stands like a sentry near one of the entrances” of the hospital, yet to be installed.

Although Minister within the Ministry of Public Health Dr. Karen Cummings spoke of the government having a “culture of caring,” Anthony, with the support of his colleagues who chanted the “government don’t care,” listed several shortcomings in the health sector, which he said demonstrated that the “government don’t care.”

“It is obvious that the public health sector is in shambles but the government don’t care,” Anthony said.

Another opposition member, Vickram Bharrat, also said that the budget does not offer anything to the ordinary Guyanese. He said it lacks vision and imagination and it will see wealth redistribution instead of wealth creation. He also said there have been shortages of drugs, especially in the hinterland areas, while the roads are deplorable and playgrounds need to be fixed.

According to Bharrat, the budget is laced with government spending and routine work but nothing to help to achieve any long-term goal. He described it as a romance novel, “fictitious and filled with heartbreaks.”