Political parties failed sugar workers in Guyana and Trinidad

Dear Editor,

With reference to the ongoing media debate on the sugar industry, in rural outreach discussions (seminars) with international scholars in Trinidad and Guyana, which are part of the commemoration of the centenary of the abolition of indenture, sugar workers in both societies bitterly complain of their mistreatment by state owned sugar companies and the government. Ironically, the sugar workers complain they were severely maltreated by the political parties (PPP and UNC) they supported even during the period when those parties were in government.

Wherever I travelled in the large rural areas of both societies, the complaints by former or current sugar workers were endless and poignant. Their political leaders did them a grave injustice. One can understand why the PNM and PNC were not keen at helping sugar workers or even farmers in general because sugar workers don’t support those parties.

But political scientists would find it difficult to understand and explain why a political party would misuse and debase its own supporters.

In Trinidad, after assailing the UNC for not servicing its political base, and assuring sugar workers that the sugar industry would not be closed, the (African) PNM administration abruptly closed down the sugar industry in 2003. But Prime Minister Patrick Manning committed to giving about five acres of land to the workers so they can earn a living from agriculture. The workers were supposed to inherit the 77,000 acres to start agro industries. Some 14 years later, workers got land but half remained landless. About 6,000 workers are still waiting for the land.

Initially, the PNM did not execute its commitment to the sugar workers and it required court intervention to enforce an agreement made between the sugar workers’ union and the government. Sugar workers did not vote PNM; since 1956 they always voted against the PNM just as sugar workers have not voted PNC in Guyana since 1957. As such, the PNM (Prime Minister Patrick Manning) administration was not very keen to enforce the agreement signed with workers. Human rights campaigner Ramesh Maharaj, the former Attorney General, took the PNM government to court in 2005 and won. But long before he took up the workers’ case, Maharaj, when he was deputy leader of the UNC and AG, advised the UNC government to give the land to the sugar workers in 2001 to save the industry. Maharaj was immediately fired as AG by Prime Minister Basdeo Panday who had earlier instructed Maharaj to sign an order granting the land to Clico. Maharaj refused to sign the order, and he was terminated as AG. Ironically, although Maharaj fought for sugar workers, they did not support him when Panday fired him. The court ordered the PNM to honour its contract to the sugar workers.  But the order was not carried out with any sense of urgency; only a few got land during Manning’s tenure as PM. Maharaj persisted with court proceedings to enforce the court order.

During election campaigns in 2007 and 2010, the UNC promised if it won the elections, the new government’s first order of business would be to grant the sugar workers their land. The UNC did not win in 2007, but it won and governed for over five years between 2010 and 2015. The UNC played politics with the workers’ land. Some half of the workers still did not get the land during that period. The UNC needed their political support telling them if they won re-election in 2015, they would get the land. The UNC lost power and many sugar workers are without the land as it is not a priority of the new PNM administration.

The situation is similar in Guyana where the sugar workers were also taken for a ride by the PPP administration. The PPP knew the sugar industry was not doing well.  It did not level with the workers about the problems facing sugar. The PPP was advised that if placed directly in the workers’ hands, the industry could be profitable. Privately owned cane farming was profitable. But the PPP was not willing to give the land to the sugar workers to grow cane; the welfare of the sugar workers was not a priority not dissimilar from the attitude of the UNC in Trinidad.

Not to be outdone, the APNU+AFC leaders lambasted the PPP for neglecting sugar workers and won some votes in the sugar belt catapulting it into office in May 2015. But within a year in office, the APNU+AFC coalition broke its promise. Now, a sugar estate has been closed and hundreds of workers have lost their jobs. The APNU+AFC coalition has refused to honour labour agreements after announcing the closure of Wales Estate. In addition, it appears reluctant to give land to the workers to earn a living in farming – not dissimilar from what obtains in Trinidad.

Throughout their lives, the sugar workers gave extraordinary, emotional support to the PPP and UNC. Both have largely failed the workers. The AFC has also disappointed those sugar workers who crossed over to it in 2011 and 2015. The sugar workers are despondent as a consequence of the neglect shown by their political leadership.

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram

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