Sugar and the bureaucracy

Nothing illustrates the utter disorganization of the government more than the way the recent lay-offs in the sugar industry were handled. This is quite independent of the economic, business and humanitarian implications which the retrenchment raises and which are not under consideration here.

In May of this year the government issued a White Paper, which was laid in the National Assembly. It outlined the plans for the sugar industry which foresaw GuySuCo being reduced to three factories and five cultivating sites at the end of this year. The three factories were to be accounted for by Blairmont, in addition to the amalgamation of Albion and Rose Hall as well as Uitvlugt and Wales, Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder told Parliament at the time. Enmore would be closed.

The Minister went on to tell MPs that while the corporation would retain as many workers as needed, former employees would be leased land for the purpose of cultivating crops which would be decided by GuySuCo and the Ministry of Agriculture. Furthermore, a “corporate vehicle” would be established to manage the privatization and divestment of the corporation’s assets. The corporate vehicle which was set up was the Special Purpose Unit (SPU), established by Nicil.

The White Paper with its signal of depressing news for sugar workers on identified estates was mitigated to some extent by none other than Minister of State Joseph Harmon in the middle of last month. He told the media at one of his post-Cabinet briefing sessions that the closure of Enmore and Rose Hall, which had been previously stated to occur by the end of the year was not likely until 2018, and the process “may very well go into 2018.”

If this was not exactly a reassurance, at least it postponed the fateful day, so it came as something of a shock when it emerged last week that more than 2,000 sugar workers from Skeldon Estate  had been served with notices of dismissal, following 400 termination letters which had been sent to Rose Hall workers the week before. The redundancies will become official on December 29. These are, of course, in addition to the 250 Enmore workers who would have become redundant yesterday.

From a bureaucratic point of view it was an equal shock when Minister Harmon told reporters that the decision had not been discussed at Cabinet and that bar Minister Holder, everyone was surprised by the move. “We believe that at least some kind of notification ought to have been given”, he was quoted as saying, going on to comment: “I believe that having regard to several initiatives that have been taken – the Special Purpose Unit has said that it is having some very good responses to their offers – that one would have thought that they could have at least [done] things differently. This is my concern: that they have basically come out like a surprise to us.”

Well it was a surprise to the public too. How could the Minister of Agriculture not inform his Cabinet colleagues? How could no one not keep the Minister of State up to date about what was going on? Who really is in charge of the government? It might be observed en passant that under the previous administration, Dr Roger Luncheon, for all his lengthy perambulations around the English language, always knew what was going on.

As for the AFC, which has been under considerable criticism recently over what has been perceived as its supine posture in relation to APNU, it came out with a less than confrontational statement on the issue, emphasizing severance pay, but conceding the unavoidability of actions laid out in the White Paper. Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo for his part, put the AFC position more strongly, criticizing GuySuCo in Parliament during the budget debate for the way in which it had handled the retrenchment, and saying that a severance plan should have been crafted with the workers before the letters were issued. Was this the position of the whole government – now that we know that Cabinet was in the dark?

The man at the centre of the issue – Minister Holder – was quite unrepentant. He said there was nothing wrong with sending workers home since this had been indicated in the White Paper, and in any case, there was no work for the employees to do at the estates. A Minister of Agriculture in this country is a very senior member of government, who should have a grasp of the sensitivity and ramifications of this particular matter, if nothing else. How can he believe that he should not alert his government colleagues once again to the problematic portions of a White Paper a good time before termination letters are issued?

Last Thursday, the head of SPU, Mr Colvin Heath-London, added a new dimension to understanding the confusion in an interview with the Guyana Chronicle. That paper reported him as saying that Cabinet had never ratified the White Paper, although it had ratified the SPU. Subsequent to the White Paper being laid, Cabinet had issued a Cabinet paper which superseded the White Paper, he said, but that Minister Holder had ignored this. Mr Heath-London was quoted as saying: “The difference in ideology is that … instead of the factories being closed entirely, let’s put it out into the international and global market and let’s see if there is anyone that wants to run the cane-producing industry or diversify while making the process transparent.”

However, in order to make the process transparent and the sale viable, the SPU head was reported as telling the state paper that the estates would have to be kept operational and alive. He thought GuySuCo should have handed the stewardship of the estates to the SPU, and in so doing, severed the workers which the Unit would then have rehired.

Herein may lie the source of Minister Harmon’s lack of information about what was going on: He was communicating with the SPU, but not Minister Holder. And where the last named is concerned, he was not without his opinions on the SPU either, telling reporters that that Unit’s views were financial, and not agricultural. “A Special Purpose Unit might have other ideas,” we quoted him as saying in our Wednesday edition, “but a Special Purpose Unit does not fall under Agriculture, it falls under Finance. It is a part of Nicil and they aren’t the ones that have to make the decision.” (It might be noted too that GuySuCo’s management and the SPU have been at cross purposes over another matter, viz, the corporation’s assets. Some of its machines and equipment have been moved by the former from estates identified for privatization.)

So here was a situation where one arm of government seems to all appearances to have been at odds with another arm over the future of the estates, and Cabinet, not to mention the Minister of State appears to have been blissfully unaware of it. Had the members been fully apprised one would have thought that measures would have been taken long before this to deal with the matter and take some decisions, more particularly if there was indeed, as the state paper reported, an ‘ideological’ divide. The onus would have been on Minister Holder in such circumstances to bring the issues to Cabinet, although even if that were not done, had Minister Harmon had more wide-ranging discussions, he would have uncovered the frictions and conflicting views on his own account.

This whole episode seems to suggest that there is no firm hand guiding decision-making, or anyone with sufficient authority to intervene when contradictions or antagonisms emerge. And the Minister of State appears woefully poorly briefed on the details of some major issues.

Finally, in a week when there was another ominous development as well as the retrenchments, where was President David Granger? He was in Kenya feeding elephants.

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