GuySuCo’s press encounter further exposed its disdain for the workers

Dear Editor,

The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), through reports appearing in several sections of the media, has taken note of the reported comments and statements made by officials of the Guyana Sugar Corporation Inc (GuySuCo) on October 13, 2017. Interestingly, we noted that the corporation’s press encounter took place on a most inauspicious day – Black Friday. Maybe it was mere coincidence. Or, maybe given the terrible news that GuySuCo shared, the day was most appropriate as it only served to rub salt in the deep wounds that have been and are being inflicted by the sugar company.

Our union noted too that the top-level of the corporation’s hierarchy surprisingly absented themselves from engaging with the press. And, instead a second tier team was sent to do what really their ‘bosses’ should have done. We wonder why is it that the corporation’s top-brass chose to stay away. Is it a case of them avoiding the press as they may be called on to defend their stewardship? It seems there may be more in the mortar than the pestle can pound.

It was most ironic that the corporation’s officials like proud peacocks, beaming brightly delivered in heartlessness the cold news that thousands of sugar workers would be sent onto the breadline. The displaced workers will join the many who have suffered a similar fate in recent times. As the sad news was delivered, it seemed that the GuySuCo team was almost joyful, when it sought to justify that such a harsh approach was necessary. It is surprising that the sugar company, as a state-owned entity, has taken an approach of putting profits before people.

Such positions are normally adopted by private enterprises but not state-owned corporations. State enterprises, the world over, play an important role in promoting employment in an effort to minimize poverty and social problems. Even in the United States, one of the bastions of capitalism, private enterprises were given support by that country’s government in an effort to protect workers and the wider economy. Similar factors were also recognized by then Prime Minister Forbes Burnham when he decided to nationalize the sugar industry.

The corporation then spoke highly about its Alternative Livelihood Programme (ALP) which it says will seek to give displaced workers new skills. While not seeking to completely throw cold water on the corporation’s programme, we recognize that many of the skills touted are already heavily subscribed to in the local labour market. It creates a great deal of mystery as to where the jobs will come from to support the trained workers, especially in view of a generally recognised economic slowdown. Moreover, we are aware that the  government through the Board of Industrial Training (BIT) and other such programmes has been offering such skills training to youth, among others. Over the last several years, thousands of Guyanese have benefited from such training. It would be interesting to know what has been the rate of success of those trained in obtaining jobs. We remember a study conducted, not too long ago, by the TVET body which did not show very encouraging results.

The corporation’s officials then boastfully tell us that between 2015 and 2016, employment costs in the industry declined massively by falling as much as 17 per cent in the period. For the workers, this is a severe blow to their standard-of-living. Based on the corporation’s admission, each worker, on average, took home about $200,000 less last year than they did in the previous year. The GAWU wants to believe, however, that the decline in the ordinary workers’ earnings was even more significant. We recall that in 2016 there was a substantial expansion of the corporation’s hierarchy with several highly paid officials being taken on. Also, several technical officers and assistants were employed to help the newly hired officials. Given the expansion at the top-bracket level and noting the overall contraction of the ordinary workers’ pay, we don’t believe our conclusion is far fetched.

GuySuCo’s team also made another startling revelation regarding revenues. The Deputy CEO/Finance Director, Paul Bhim revealed that revenues rose from about $18B in 2015 to $20.4B in 2016. What makes it interesting in our mind is that last year sugar production was 26 per cent lower than in 2015, but revenues rose by just over 11 per cent. Moreover, if the Skeldon Co-Generation Plant was in the corporation’s hands, revenue last year from this resource would have been $9.5B higher, which would have significantly reduced the required government support to the industry. Clearly, it tells us that light is appearing at the end of the tunnel.

The sugar-company delegation then spoke about its rice experiment at Wales Estate. The public is told that some 27 bags of paddy per acre were obtained vis-à-vis an expectation of 35 bags. The Corporation’s Diversifica-tion Options report dated October 26, 2016 and given to our union on December 31, 2016, says at page 13 that “…GUYSUCO can achieve approximately 40 (180lbs) bags per acre”. Has the corporation lowered its expectation? It would be interesting to know what the reason/s for such reduction were. Furthermore, from information that has reached us regarding the experiment, we take the corporation’s information with a pinch of salt. GuySuCo may wish to edify the nation as to how many bags of seed paddy per acre were obtained. We understand that a large amount of the harvested paddy did not reach the specifications to be deemed seed paddy and will have to be milled into rice. This means that GuySuCo will obtain a lower than expected price for harvested paddy and could very well realize a loss on the experiment, for which it is indebted to the Guyana Rice Development Board. The GAWU also noticed that nothing at all was said about the other non-sugar initiatives that GuySuCo spoke greatly about in the recent past. Have these proposals become stillborn?

Skeldon’s sale was also promoted on the grounds that the factory was inefficient and required significant investment. We find this statement at odds with the reality that several parties have expressed their interest in purchasing the estate. Normally, a rational person in seeking to sell their property would usually speak to the positives about their assets in order to obtain the best possible price. The GuySuCo has adopted, however, an opposite approach. It seems, from our perspective that the corporation is making the case to have the estate sold at a basement price to a preferred buyer.

The corporation also laments the strike situation in the sugar industry. This age-old excuse is becoming worn out and stale now, but the GuySuCo hierarchy knows that it needs to find justifications for its failures. GAWU reiterates that the majority of strikes are related to disputes concerning payment for abnormalities such as grass, vines, weeds, etc, that require significant extra efforts by workers to harvest the required quantum of canes. As far as we are aware, this is probably the only such situation in the entire “southern hemisphere” whereby a worker is required to execute a task that has no fixed rate, and is required to work in many instances under suboptimal conditions. If the corporation was indeed serious about addressing this longstanding problem it has a suggestion made by the GAWU a long time ago and reiterated over the years as well as a recommendation contained in the Sugar CoI report. But in our view, GuySuCo wants the situation to remain as it is. Should such a mechanism be agreed upon the corporation’s deceptions would stand nakedly exposed as all the available canes would be harvested without dispute and delay and the union and the workers as its scapegoat would no longer be in the corporation’s crosshairs.

The corporation’s Black Friday press encounter, in our view, only served to further expose the company’s disdain for its workers and their organization. The show which played out at the NCN studios failed miserably in assuaging the real and significant concerns that the sugar workers have with the plans for the industry. Several concerning issues in our mind still remain unaddressed.

The charade by GuySuCo in seeking to justify its sad and wrong positions stands exposed for the nation, indeed the world, to see. History will not judge kindly those who lead and promote the corporation’s plans to bring hardship to so many of our compatriots and their families.

Yours faithfully,

Seepaul Narine

General Secretary, GAWU

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