The tragedy confronting the sugar industry in Guyana and the fifteen thousand workers and their families, along with the tens of thousands of others who are likely to be affected indirectly thereby, is a classic saga of politics, betrayal and incompetence. During the elections campaign of 2011, Mr Moses Nagamootoo spoke to the sugar workers at the ‘order lines’ of almost every estate and promised them a 25% increase in wages, should the AFC win those elections. This promise was reiterated on public platforms throughout the country and in the media.
After those elections, the AFC teamed up with the APNU and with their combined one seat-majority, in the National Assembly, and blocked almost every financial injection from the treasury to GuySuCo. These were actions which manifestly derogated from the promise for wages increase and support for the sugar industry and its workers, publicly made and advocated only a few months earlier. The AFC was in collusion with the APNU, when the APNU’s then economic strongman, Carl Greenidge, surmised from the floor of the National Assembly in the 10th Parliament that financial assistance to GuySuCo is pouring money into, “a bottomless black hole.” During the budgetary presentations of 2013 and 2014, the sugar workers came in protest in front of the Parliament Buildings. They manhandled Mr Moses Nagamootoo when he attempted to speak to them. Away from the sugar workers and in the confines of the National Assembly, Mr Nagamootoo boasted, “the sugar workers had their say and now the scissors will have its day,” as they cut monies budgeted for the sugar industry.
As the 2015 elections approached, again the political song and dance changed. A hypocritical hand of goodwill was extended by the APNU+AFC coalition to the sugar workers in order to get their votes. This diabolical agenda again was led by Mr Nagamootoo. Mr Khemraj Ramjattan, was a close second. At the Whim Rally, Mr Ramjattan promised no closure of estates but new management and an economic turnaround for the sugar industry. The sugar workers are generally a trusting people and again hundreds of them fell victim to the fraud. They voted for the coalition.
When the first bumper crop came soon after the elections, Mr Nagamootoo, in an act of incomparable guile, took credit for and on behalf of the coalition government. He proclaimed the beginning of a new vista for the sugar industry. However, when the next crop produced recording-breaking low outputs, the stories of doom resurfaced about the sugar industry. Scorn and disdain were poured upon the sugar workers and they were portrayed as living-off the blood and sweat of other workers. It was a naked and malicious strategy of dividing the working class along the lines of politics and race. Suddenly, the sugar industry and its workers became the greatest burden on the backs of taxpayers. The sustenance, which the sugar industry provided to this nation and its people for over 300 years, was obliterated. The use of billions of dollars from the sugar levy, extracted from the real wages of the sugar workers and pumped into the bauxite industry to keep it alive for nearly two decades in order to provide a livelihood for tens of thousands in Linden, Ituni and Kwakwani, was vapourised. The sugar workers and their unions not only were deprived of their Annual Production Incentive (API) but also they did not benefit from a dollar of wage increases, while employees from every other state sector enjoyed annual increases by a minimum of 5%. When the unions attempted to negotiate a wage increase, they were told that GuySuCo was actively considering a decrease in wages!
It is against that backdrop, that Wales was closed with such arrogance that the unions and the workers read about it as a small news item in the national newspapers. The disclosure came not from GuySuCo but from the government. Not a word of consultation, neither with the workers nor their unions. Mr Nagamootoo was conveniently out of the country. When public pressure rose, the workers were promised severance pay, land to do farming and employment at Uitvlugt estate. None has materialized a year later. Instead, the nation is informed that Enmore and Rose Hall estates will now suffer closures; Skeldon is up for sale.
The machinations which have occurred along the way provide some of the most striking examples of hypocrisy and deception seen in modern times. Earlier this year, the unions and the PPP were invited to provide alternative plans to demonstrate how the industry can enjoy a turnaround in fortunes. This was followed up with a series of engagements between a team representing the government and teams representing the PPP and the unions. As far as I am aware, those engagements have not been brought to a halt. A White Paper and then a State Paper was subsequently laid in the National Assembly, for there to be a national debate on the way forward for the sugar industry. These initiatives held up great hope for the workers and their families. Everyone felt that the government was acting in good faith and was really interested in a collaborative effort towards finding a solution.
Lo and behold, we accidentally stumbled upon a letter written by Mr Joseph Harmon, Minister of State acting on behalf of the Government of Guyana, appointing Wesley Kirton, as a glorified real estate agent, to sell all of GuySuCo or any part thereof.
This letter was written since November 2016.What this means, therefore, is that all the actions of the government thereafter conveying the impression that they were engaging on GuySuCo, were a charade. Only a few days ago, I wrote a civil and balanced letter, querying a social event held in Florida last Saturday and the legality of funds raised therefrom.
My queries were genuine and made in good faith as a Member of Parliament. Mr Kirton responded. I refuse to dignify his statements with a response, that I was at a loss to understand (‘Florida event is private, by invitation only’ SN June 11; ‘Non-profit organizations invite select people…’ SN, June 14).
The government’s decision to sell GuySuCo is not based on any economic analyses, or on the Commission of Inquiry’s Report or, upon any impact assessment done. Indeed, other than political considerations, no one knows on what basis the government is acting. GuySuCo is not simply a business and cannot be viewed from the perspective of profit and loss.
It is an institution. The same way that the Obama administration could not have afforded to allow certain huge companies to crash during the financial meltdown and therefore, bailed out these companies, the same way the Guyanese economy cannot afford GuySuCo’s closure.
It still is the largest employer in Guyana, employing over 15,000 workers. It still is one of our largest foreign exchange earners and one of our major direct contributors to GDP. When one takes into account the fact that nearly 100,000 persons, directly or indirectly, depend upon GuySuCo for their livelihood; the total amount of taxes, which they pay; their NIS contributions; the economic impact of their domestic consumption; the cost of finding alternative employment; the cost of maintaining the drainage and irrigation network in the backlands right across the coast; the cost of healthcare and other social services, which are provided by GuySuCo to communities nationwide; the cost of the provision of electricity for 90,000 households in Berbice by the Skeldon Co-Generation Plant (as per Dr Clive Thomas), one will quickly see that the cost of closing the estates far exceeds the cost of keeping them functioning.
When one adds to this equation, the over $30 billion which was disbursed to Guyana for the abolition of the subsidies and which was used as budgetary support for other sectors with only a small fraction going towards GuySuCo, the case becomes even more unassailable.
For the reasons I have adumbrated, I stand firmly in solidarity with the sugar workers and their families. Their cause is just, win we must, history and time are on our side. We will grind oppression into the dust.
Mohabir Anil Nandlall, MP