The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) believes it is incumbent, as a responsible union, to respond to Mr Earl John’s letter appearing in the July 1, Stabroek News captioned ‘GAWU must be the most outdated institution of its kind’. Our union on the one hand holds that Mr John is writing in his personal capacity, albeit that it is difficult to delink him from the fact that he holds a very senior position in the Guyana Sugar Corporation Inc (GuySuCo) and that his letter focused on the very company he is currently employed with.
Mr John, the latest of several persons to have criticized our union for our principled stance, speaks to the relevance of “customs and practices”. The gentleman is no stranger to the sugar industry having been involved in the industry since colonial times, and thus he is very well aware that those “customs and practices” he decries arose from the unique nature of the operations in the industry, and he should be equally aware that it was during his time as the Personnel Director that many these same “customs and practices” were established and became institutionalized as a part of the conditions of work of the sugar workers. It seems Mr John is advocating that workers not be paid for the labour they provide to the industry. Our union, is of the view that Mr John rather than airing his discontent in the media should seek to meaningfully engage the union in discussions on the matter, especially given his re-employment and newly-appointed post in GuySuCo as the Human Resources Director, responsible for labour relations. Certainly, the learned and experienced individual that Mr John is supposed to be ought to know better and formally engage the union rather than shirking his responsibility and airing his discontent in the public domain.
The letter further speaks to our support of the Skeldon project which Mr John describes as a “failed computerised elephantine factory”. While Mr John, for reasons best known to him, has chosen to describe the Skeldon factory in such terms, we read and hear about the high interest being paid by foreigners in acquiring the estate. Certainly, either the buyers have to be absolutely insane or Mr John, maybe, is not acquainted with the reality of our times, having been out of sugar for almost two decades.
Mr John goes on the speak about workers’ demands for “obstacle” payments which are payments given to workers when they are required to exert extra effort to cut canes wrapped in vines, shrubs and bushes, in grass-infested fields. The notion of obstacles pre-dates GAWU’s entry into the sugar industry and gives recognition to the significant efforts required by workers in the harvesting of canes in such conditions. Furthermore, the quantum of those payments is determined between the shop stewards and the management. It is, therefore, befuddling to say that price gouging is occurring when both sides have to agree on the price. Mr John, it seems, is confused. As a former Personnel Director, Mr John should know that a well-grown crop of canes, free of bushes and vines, will certainly avoid the payments of obstacles. So, in his current position, rather than criticizing the payment of obstacles, he should advocate that the company grows canes in fields devoid of grass, bushes and vines.
Further on the matter of obstacles, the Recognition and the Avoidance and Settlement of Disputes Agreement, signed in 1976 between GAWU and the Sugar Producers Association (SPA), GuySuCo’s forerunner, conceded the workers’ right to withdraw their labour when an agreement on pricing could not be reached. This condition also prevailed in the predecessor Union/SPA agreement. Mr John is well aware of this, or he is just conveniently forgetful. On this matter too, our union had proposed to GuySuCo, some years ago, that where a worker is required to cut canes in abnormal conditions that worker would undertake his task but would not be paid less than their average daily earnings for some number of preceding days. Maybe, Mr John who is now in the driver’s seat on labour matters could consider this suggestion.
The talk about the number of strikes by the sugar workers seems to be a sore point for Mr John. He is obviously saying that workers should not utter a word when the management seeks to take advantage of them and rides roughshod over their rights and benefits. While an inference is drawn regarding the strikes vis-à-vis what takes place regionally, those facts cannot be disconnected from the respect employers locally and regionally give their employees and their representative organisations. Rather than the contemporary, enlightened approach, we see GuySuCo’s present-day rulers moving back to those times when the plantocracy ruled the roost and workers were seen as mere faceless pawns who had no rights and were regarded as fit to do back-breaking work to fatten the owners and their hangers-on. We wish to say to Mr John and those who seek to push workers back to those colonial times, they can only, consciously or unconsciously, do greater harm to the industry and also the country. GAWU wishes to assure Mr John that it will relentlessly defend, at all costs, any attempt to take workers back to those times.