The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) takes this opportunity to respond to a letter which appeared in the February 15 edition of Stabroek News signed by Ms Audreyanna Thomas, Senior Communications Officer, Guyana Sugar Corporation Inc (GuySuCo).
In that letter, GuySuCo points out that our union and the corporation have paradoxically different views on the sugar industry. However, it should be pointed out also that for years, the GAWU and GuySuCo enjoyed good working relations which resulted in the improvement in workers’ well-being and in such conditions the industry progressed. That general situation obtained until around the latter part of 2015 when, clearly, GuySuCo’s topmost executives began taking an unfriendly approach to the union and the workers. GAWU has repeatedly stated its obligation to defend and safeguard workers’ rights, benefits and work conditions. This has always been our commitment and our resolve has not changed. We have no different agenda. We need also to stress that we see the need for a working relationship with GuySuCo in a worker-friendly environment, more particularly in these times.
The corporation also calls attention to the support the union and the workers received from bodies locally and abroad on the closure of Wales. The union is pleased with the local and international support and the various expressions of solidarity; the fact that such widespread attention was garnered demonstrates the seriousness with which the closure decision is being viewed.
Ms Thomas then speaks to the transitioning of Wales from sugar production to other crops, confirming our position that cane cultivation and sugar processing have ended at the estate. And, therefore, the workers’ substantive jobs at the Wales location are now redundant. The corporation’s Senior Communications Officer may also wish to enlighten us on the transition she referred to which we understand remains at a standstill.
We are supportive of GuySuCo’s intention to double Uitvlugt Estate’s output and hasten to ask, why haven’t similar strategies been developed for other estates? Ms Thomas may also want to advise why the corporation refused Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) financing to further mechanization, in an effort to augment the labour force, at Uitvlugt, Rose Hall and Albion Estates. The reference to Uitvlugt’s climatic conditions by the corporation is an explanation that is surely on shaky ground since such factors were known to the CDB’s assessors, who processed the funding request, and the Sugar Commission of Inquiry (CoI), which strongly recommended the project.
The corporation goes on to refer to 950 persons employed at Wales, but when an account is taken of every person from the Estate Manager and below, we think that some 1,700 workers were employed there. We also need to bring Ms Thomas’ attention to the fact that the corporation had advised us that it had jobs for about 420 workers at Uitvlugt and not 650 as her letter says. The workers did indeed wage a struggle to safeguard their jobs at Wales and not to have them sent nearly 22 miles away to Uitvlugt as GuySuCo is promoting. It is germane that we be reminded that Section 21(4)(b) of the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act (TESPA) requires an employer to provide severance payments if the employer is unable to provide a similar job “at the same place of employment or within a radius of ten (10) miles therefrom under no less favourable conditions than those such employee enjoyed immediately prior to the termination”. Given GuySuCo’s admission that the workers’ jobs are redundant and Uitvlugt is beyond the lawful radius, then it follows that the severance pay question has correctly arisen. We urge, again, that GuySuCo respect the workers’ legal right to severance pay.
We noted too, if our understanding is correct, that the corporation, through Ms Thomas, is advising that should a severed Wales worker seek employment at Uitvlugt or any other estate he/she would be turned away. On this score, we urge the company quickly to become familiar with the Prevention of Discrimination Act.
The protests by the workers of Rose Hall are identical to those of Wales. The workers there are solidly opposed to closure and want their jobs to remain and not be shifted as the corporation pleases. GuySuCo makes reference to the Skeldon workers whose jobs, unlike those of their compatriots at Wales, are not being declared redundant and their work at the other Berbice Estates is a temporary arrangement in view of the situation obtaining at the Skeldon factory. The case of the Wales workers is completely different and the corporation is simply not giving the public the real picture.
Our union stands in full support of the Wales workers and rejects all attempts by GuySuCo to coerce them to take up employment at Uitvlugt or to deny them their right to severance pay. We see the corporation’s missive as another desperate attempt to distract from its wrong closure decision and to give us half-truths.
GAWU, as it always has, remains on the side of the workers and continues to defend them while exposing the various anti-workers tirades and schemes directed against their interest.