We refer to a letter of the Guyana Sugar Corporation Inc (GuySuCo) which appeared in the April 13, 2017 edition of Stabroek News under the hand of the Company’s Senior Communications Officer, Ms Audreyanna Thomas and headlined `GAWU’s response to GuySuCo’s challenges has been to call or support strike action’.
The Corporation’s Officer again belabours the worn out, and wrong argument that Wales Estate has not been closed. But we hasten to ask hasn’t the cultivation of cane and the processing of sugar ended at Wales? Haven’t hundreds of workers been made redundant and are confronted with the prospect of an uncertain future? Haven’t many cane farmers, a large number with small ancestral peasant-type holdings, been forced out of business? Hasn’t the Corporation begun to cannibalize the Wales factory? Certainly, if that isn’t closure then GuySuCo and Ms Thomas may have redefined the word.
While our Union, the workers and all Guyanese continually hear about Wales being the launching pad for the Corporation’s re-activation of its Other Crops Division (OCD), we ask the sugar company to advise us all how far have their ideas been implemented? As far as we are aware nothing has been done and all we hear about are studies, feasibility assessments, etc. Undoubtedly, the Corporation put the “cart before the horse” in closing Wales.
Ms Thomas makes reference to high production costs but fails to tell us that a significant proportion, around 70 per cent, of the industry’s costs are fixed. An important element in addressing cost reduction is improved production which will lend to lower average fixed costs. On the declining market prices, the Corporation is well aware that refocusing its marketing within the CARICOM region and non-traditional European buyers is a first step to securing improved prices. Moreover, establishing a refinery will absorb a large proportion of its sugar output and for which there is an assured lucrative market in the Caribbean. The maximization of the packaging capacity is also another area where profitability can be had. On the Corporation’s debt, we see the quoted sum as a ‘red herring’ meant to deceive and mislead.
We share GuySuCo’s view about Uitvlugt and are supportive of measures and plans to improve production. But we ask when it is generally accepted that all estates are operating below their potentiality why hasn’t the Corporation advanced plans to have production in line with productivity as it seeks to do at Uitvlugt? On the labour issue at Uitvlugt, it is irksome for us that the Corporation has refused funding for further mechanization at that estate to address the labour difficulties. We take the Corporation’s explanation, on this matter, with a pinch of salt.
Ms Thomas refers to the need to secure Uitvlugt “…to contribute to a buoyant economy in West Demerara communities”. We share the view entirely but are the same time confused as it is the same state-owned enterprise which closed Wales Estate located in West Demerara and is advancing plans to close the East Demerara and Rose Hall Estates and to sell-out Skeldon Estate. Aren’t those workers, residents and communities deserving of similar treatment.
GAWU’s advice to the Wales workers is in keeping with the workers’ rights as outlined in the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act (TESPA). It would be unprincipled and callous for our Union to knowingly countenance an illegality. And concerning the planters of East Demerara, the workers being given tasks when not planting are widely known and accepted. It is GuySuCo, which in spite of long-standing practices, that is compelling the planters to cut canes. It is disheartening for us to register, in both scenarios, that the Corporation is seemingly re-introducing the wretched system of forced labour in the sugar industry.
While GuySuCo points to the level of turnout by cane cutters at East Demerara Estate, it fails to see the absurdity in its statement. At this time, when jobs outside of sugar are limited, if not non-existent, the level of turnout should strike a chord. The fact remains that willingness to work is influenced by rates-of-pay. Certainly, denial of pay rises and Annual Production Incentive (API) in recent times along with other machinations to reduce workers’ income will not lend to improved willingness to work. The workers and the Union are willing to work to turn around the industry but our enthusiasm and drive has been tempered by the anti-workers position and haughty and arrogant attitude being displayed by the Corporation’s officers.
We reiterate that the majority of strikes are related to price disputes which arise when negotiations regarding additional payments for workers to undertake tasks in vine infested, grassy and weedy fields break down. Such work stoppages are deemed legitimate by the agreement between the parties. These stoppages could be avoided if the Corporation approaches the matters more open-mindedly with a view to seek a resolution; often times this is not the case. Moreover, high cane yields reduce the propensity of vines and other obstacles in the fields and in that way reduce demands for additional payments which in effect serves to reduce work stoppages. This is known by the Corporation’s ‘best minds’.
The Corporation in its submission to the Administration, and which was shared with us, points out that by 2020 it would become profitable. But at the same time, 9,000 workers directly would be jobless and the hopes, dreams and aspirations of thousands more would be shattered. We shudder to think of such treatment meted out to our working people. Is this the ‘Good Life’ the workers and their families were promised.