Closing the estates could provide opportunities for sugar workers

Dear Editor,

There was the time in the USA when the primary mode of transportation was by stagecoach. This mode of transportation gave rise to many areas of employment. Coaches had to be built and maintained, offices established for purchasing tickets, rest stations built and managed for providing meals, bathing and changing the horses. Companies providing this type of service, like Wells Fargo, found it extremely lucrative.

Over time the need to move greater volumes of material and people in larger numbers, faster, over greater distances and in comfort created conditions that rendered stagecoaches obsolete and ushered in the era of travel by railway. In the initial stage, there was widespread objection to this new form of transportation from workers employed in the stagecoach industry. They expressed fear of joining the ranks of the unemployed, that their families would experience hardship and that young men would resort to crime to maintain their families. Stagecoach workers appealed for public support of their cause, reminding people that the industry was faithful to citizens for years and that they should not turn their backs on the industry now.

In Guyana and in recent times the sugar industry has become a drag on the economy. Those working in the industry, just as the stagecoach workers did in the USA, protest as it becomes clear closing some estates might be necessary. Sugar workers, encouraged by their union and political party of choice, argue, like workers in the stagecoach industry had done, that they will be numbered among the unemployed and forced to resort to crime with the closing of estates. Thus, sugar workers appeal to the wider society to support them in their fight to keep the industry alive. They too appeal for this support by reminding us that the industry served us well in previous times and that the decent thing to do is to be faithful to the industry in this, its hour of need.  Interestingly, the similarities between those working in dying industries in the USA and Guyana do not end there.

While it is widely accepted that humans tend to initially fear and resist change, the tendency is far more prevalent among rural populations. Witness the fight today in rural America to keep the coal industry alive, even as the world (as in the case of sugar) is turning away from coal. And notice too that it is politicians, in both cases (here in the USA and Guyana) in their own narrow self-interest, who are seeking to take advantage of this tendency to fear change, which is most pronounced among rural people. So, what is to be done to bring some sanity to this challenge facing our sugar workers? Perhaps, a return to what happened in America with the coming of railway transport would be instructive.

Editor, it is true that here in the USA during the period that stagecoach workers underwent training to acquire skills relevant to the railway industry, they did experience some economic challenges. However, over time they came to embrace work in the railway industry. The fact that the railway would be moving materials in huge quantities and passengers by the thousands, meant that new settlements would be established along the route and these needed to be serviced. The railway meant more travellers would need to be fed and housed, giving rise to the building of hotels and restaurants, and the need for workers to help in the provision of these services. Travel by train meant carriages had to be built and maintained, mechanics had to be trained to service and repair the trains. All these activities demanded higher skilled workers and led to high paying jobs being created. This experience in the USA teaches us that we need, as a nation, to commit to doing several things in an effort to help workers in industries that are threatened with extinction.

First workers need to understand that with the speedy development in technology we live in a time of impermanence. And this is particularly so for those doing labour intensive jobs. Sugar workers need to be told that today a young worker will have to embrace and expect to undergo retraining about three times during his/her working life. Older workers will not be spared, and should expect to be subjected to retraining at least once before retirement.

Second, workers need to be told that it is true that during the period they are acquiring new and relevant skills, they are likely to experience some hardships. On the other hand, knowing this gives government and the private sector (which benefits most from the presence of a skilled labour force) an opportunity to initiate programmes designed to limit the hardship experienced by workers during retraining.

Editor, to tell sugar workers that the number of jobs presently available in the sugar industry must be kept eternally is mischievous. To tell these workers that government’s plan to close some estates is a show of government’s dislike of sugar workers, is a reflection of ignorance. Further, to suggest to workers that the closing or minimizing of an industry that is unprofitable is a call to crime for workers, but not the opening of new opportunities that hopefully, would give rise to a better life, is to be committed to keeping the poor sugar workers in a state of backwardness. Presumably some politicians find such a situation serves their own petty self- interest.

Yours faithfully,
Claudius Prince

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