BCGI and the Russians

Nothing of substance has been heard from the Government of Guyana in the wake of the visit here at the end of last year by two officials from the Russian aluminum giant RUSAL, which company is the majority shareholder in the locally based Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc (BCGI). Not a great deal has been heard either from the Guyana Bauxite & General Workers Union (GB&GWU), whose General Secretary Lincoln Lewis met with the visiting Russians even though Lewis did say to this newspaper that he had no idea that the Russians were coming, and that the invitation to meet with them had taken him by surprise.

The Russians arrived here against the backdrop of a crisis situation arising out of the state of management-worker relations at BCGI. The management there, all Russians themselves, have continued to make light of workers’ rights. Recently they displayed considerable disregard for high authority here in Guyana by not showing up for a pre-arranged meeting with Ministers Volda Lawrence and Keith Scott, which meeting, one assumes, was convened in an effort to right the listing ship of management-worker relations. That, frankly, was an unpardonable act of rudeness which ought not to have been allowed to pass without a robust public reprimand.

It might have also been reasonable to assume that the visit here by the Russians from RUSAL may have had to do with substantive bauxite-related issues since it is worth mentioning that some weeks ago during a bauxite Centenary Year event in Linden that the idea of setting up a smelter here may still be on the cards. The brief interlude, therefore, between Minister of Natural Resources Raphael Trotman had to say about the possibility of the smelter and the arrival here of the Russians might well have led to the view that the two occurrences were not a mere coincidence. As it happens, as far as we have been told, there were no smelter talks with the visiting Russians, which, of course, then gives rise to a measure of curiosity as to why the visiting Russians were here in the first place.

The strongest clue that we have derives from a peculiar remark in the media attributed to Minister Scott after the meeting with the Russians in which he reportedly said that there may be “light at the end of the tunnel” for the BCGI workers. This is a remark which can reasonably be taken to mean that the exchange between Ministers Williams and Scott and the Russians had to do with workers’ concerns, after all.

That was just over two weeks ago, and since then, nothing has happened, at least publicly, to suggest that the visit here by the RUSAL officials is likely to trigger an end to the prevailing toxic environment at BCGI. Of course, it should be made clear that the complete indifference of the previous political administration and to a lesser extent the leaden-footedness of the present one, coupled with the chronic weakness of the union are all, to varying degrees, responsible for what has become an entrenched situation as far as the posture of the BCGI management is concerned.

And what exactly does Minister Scott’s “light at the end of the tunnel” mean? Are we to assume that it took the intervention of RUSAL itself to kick start a process towards a change in the management culture at BCGI? Or should we not be witnessing assertive official intervention to remind the Russian management at BCGI that a majority stake in the company does not translate into a majority stake in the lives of the workers.

Even now management’s disregard for workers’ rights in Guyana extends beyond the BCGI situation, and government has not exactly been an ever alert sentinel as far as ensuring the protection of those rights. There are other entities too where workers’ rights are being subverted and where the Ministry of Social Protection has been far less than vigilant in addressing these. BCGI is certainly a case in point.

All of this is happening at a point in time when the industrial relations landscape in Guyana is experiencing a considerable erosion of union authority. Setting aside the fact that a good deal more than half of the employed persons in Guyana are unionized, private sector employers, on the whole, have demonstrated an absence of appetite for unionized work forces. In some instances these employers cheat workers, as evidenced particularly in the failure to provide a safe and convivial work environment, and the refusal to transfer NIS and income tax deductions to the relevant  authorities.

RUSAL, Scott is quoted as saying in a section of the media, does not want a union. That, in the context of the constitutional right of the workers of this country is a non-starter, and surely it should be made clear to  RUSAL in no uncertain terms.  The last thing we need, is to have BCGI become the barometer which we use to measure the standard by which we treat our workers. It is the government, in the first instance, that must protect the workers.

In the particular instance of BCGI, there is the ever present danger that what obtains there could become a sort of industrial relations template for other expatriate companies that might be similarly indisposed to accept unionized work forces. Unfortunately, this danger coincides with a protracted period of both institutionalized weakness and fragmentation within the trade union movement, in circumstances where many unions are mortgaged to political interests. All of this makes us vulnerable at a juncture where a robust industrial relations profile is critical to an enhanced quality of worker representation in an era of hoped for socio-economic transformation. We need to know just where we are going as far as the industrial relations environment at BCGI is concerned, now that the RUSAL officials have come, engaged the Government of Guyana and left.

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