A full year and more after the then Minister of Social Protection Volda Lawrence had announced that with effect from October 2016 workers employed by the Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc (BCGI) the majority Russian-owned bauxite company would be exempt from taxes on overtime and premium hours worked, the management of the company has finally agreed to leave the monies where they belong, (with the workers’ wages) rather than disdainfully brush aside the directive of a Minister of Government and remit the deducted amounts to the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA).
But that is not all. Now that the APNU+AFC administration appears to be fully seized of the level of contempt in which the BCGI management has held both itself and its predecessor, it has been compelled to take the precaution of having them sign an agreement with regard to the non-taxing of the workers’ overtime. There is simply no trust in the relationship.
As an aside one might add that Guyana is not the only country in which unfriendly expatriate management practices that negatively impact the welfare of local workers are part of the price paid for attracting foreign investment. The Russian aluminum giant, RUSAL, may have made an investment that baled out a local company threatened by the vagaries of the global market, but that being said, BCGI has never pretended to be interested in anything else save and except extracting and exporting bauxite.
BCGI, incidentally, is jointly owned by RUSAL (80%) and the Government of Guyana (20%). Since the startup of the company in 2004, Russian managers, ignorant and unmindful as they have been of the local work culture have been large and in charge of the company. The Government of Guyana has no operational say whatsoever in the day-to-day running of the company.
Furthermore, there has never been the slightest indication – its twenty per cent share in BCGI notwithstanding ‒ that the Government of Guyana, either the incumbent or its predecessor, has ever been able to rein in the excesses of the company’s Russian management, either in terms of its oft publicly demonstrated lack of regard for high officials of government or its indifference to the desirability of living within the laws of the land when it comes to the rights and entitlements of workers. The latter transgression, particularly, has not only been frequent and flagrant but as far as is known has never been attended by any meaningful reprimand or sanction. It is RUSAL’s investment in the country’s bauxite industry alone that furnishes it with sufficient justification for its flagrant disregard for the laws of our country and the rights of our workers.
Officially, workers at the BCGI operations are represented by a union, the Guyana Bauxite & General Workers Union (GB&GWU). That mattered little to the company’s Russian management. To some extent because of its own structural and operational weaknesses the GB&GWU had been outlawed by the Russians, its leadership forbidden from exercising its right under the law to effectively engage and pursue the interests of its members. However, the GB&GWU won a union recognition poll in October, although whether the RUSAL operatives at BCGI will now be persuaded that ownership of the overwhelming majority of the bauxite company’s shares is not the same thing as owning the country and the workers remains to be seen.
One way in which the Russians’ all-encompassing contempt for the Government of Guyana and its officials has been reflected is in its track record for ignoring legitimate summonses to meetings with high officials, invariably to discuss industrial relations issues. In the instances of both the then Minister of Labour Manzoor Nadir in 2010, and the current Minister in the Ministry of Social Protection Keith Scott, last year, the official response to RUSAL/BCGI’s altogether unacceptable rudeness was simply to raise an altogether contrived song and dance whilst sheltering behind fences erected with nothing more than meaningless verbal protestations. The long-sidelined GB&GWU has blamed government (with considerable justification) for the company’s delinquency.
Over time, pockets of remarkably resilient workers have demonstrated a commendable measure of both stamina and defiance in the face of a management style that never hesitates to impose the harshest sanctions. To a large extent, the threat of loss of wages and sometimes, jobs, has had the effect of subduing the level of militancy, though this newspaper continues to get word on workplace goings-on from time to time.
The agreement that will now, hopefully, allow for the BCGI workers to be properly and retroactively compensated for their overtime work is no more than a modest gain. BCGI is considerably in arrears to its workers in terms of conditions of work, not least in regard to safety and health; so that while both Minister Keith Scott and the General Secretary of the GB&GWU Lincoln Lewis, can take a modest bow over what now would appear to be the end of the long-running overtime impasse, neither would have earned the right to any vigorous celebration over the outcome. The resolution of the overtime issue does not, for example, remove the grip of the Russian management regime on the BCGI workers. It is for the government once and for all to set the company straight on the parameters as these relate to both the treatment of workers and the laws of the land which they, as guests of the people of Guyana, must operate. The GB&GWU, meanwhile, must provide us with an unequivocal demonstration of its ability to rise to the challenge of providing a quality of worker representation that is both militant and effective.