Prime Minister and First Vice President Moses Nagamootoo writing in the December 3, Guyana Chronicle spent a great deal of his column entitled ‘Different strategy in changing times’ on the sugar industry. But rather than hiding in the Chronicle, the PM, who calls himself an ally of the workers, should visit the sugar belt and look at the workers and their families in their eyes and tell them to their faces that he and his Cabinet colleagues decided to take, as his colleague and Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan said recently, “hard decisions”. Such decisions, mind you, have, for many families, resulted in their main breadwinner being put out of a job; having their dreams of a good future shattered, and, in short, being pushed into an impoverished state. The PM who despite his state responsibilities such as unveiling a banner at the Chronicle or celebrating his birthday in fine style, nevertheless finds time to write a weekly column. He must be congratulated as none of his colleagues can seem to find such time; well, one can only guess about the work he has on his desk. This apart, given Mr Nagamootoo’s office, his words, in all likelihood, should have weight, thus it is to be expected that he or his staff would fact-check his assertions before his column is sent to press. Such an exercise is important in order to avoid any embarrassment to him as well as to provide accurate information to the public. Unfortunately and dismayingly it seems the PM’s last column did not benefit from such a review.
From the get-go, the PM starts off on the wrong foot as he speaks about the sugar industry’s debt. Documents shared by the government on Old Year’s Day last year, pointed out that the industry’s real indebtedness stood at about $17B at the end of October, 2016, far from the number quoted by the PM. The $85B debt flag waved at every possible chance by the PM and his cohorts, is nothing more than a diversionary tactic to scare a section of the Guyanese public into supporting the very unsound plans it has for the industry. Such a course, we repeat, will see thousands of workers as victims.
Mr Nagamootoo then goes talking about Skeldon. For the PM’s information, besides the construction of the new factory at Skeldon, there was the doubling of the cultivation, the co-generation plant, and the link canal to facilitate the transport of farmers’ canes, among other things, that made up the Skeldon Sugar Modernisa-tion Project (SSMP). That project was not dreamt up but benefited from in-depth analysis by credible bodies. But while the PM has chosen to label Skeldon a quackless duck, it is this very estate that buyers, including at least one Mr Nagamootoo should be aware of, are lining up to acquire. It seems the estate speaks for itself.
We then read in the PM’s column about the closure of the LBI factory in 2011. That process saw almost no worker being sent home. This is quite unlike what happened in 2016 when this government to which Mr Nagamootoo belongs decided to shutter the field operations under the mask of integrating the LBI and Enmore estates to consolidate their operations. Moving in that direction saw 121 workers being sent onto the breadline. Then the workers of LBI having had to swallow that bitter pill, supposedly in the interest of safeguarding their jobs, in a matter of weeks were told that their estate had to be closed. Presently over 1,500 workers from East Demerara Estate are being shown the gate and cannot be told by the PM or his government what workable plans they have for them.
As the current PM of Guyana, we expect Mr Nagamootoo to know that during this administration, the sugar industry went from the road to recovery at the end of 2015 to one which is now on life support. In that short period, production has fallen by 35 per cent and workers’ morale is possibly at its lowest point ever. While the PM speaks about state support to the industry, he forgets that it is the largest employer in the nation and its operations touch so many lives across our country. Furthermore, he forgets, maybe conveniently, the industry’s huge contributions, financial and otherwise, to the progress of our country and welfare of the people.
The PM then charges that our union is only seeking to safeguard income from our union dues. While laughable, the statement no doubt speaks of the desperation of the PM, understandable at this time. The reality cannot support Mr Nagamootoo’s sordid claim. How is it our union is looking to protect its income but seeking – and again this may have slipped the PM’s notice – that workers’ rights to severance pay be respected by the regime of which he is PM? Certainly, it seems, the PM hadn’t fully considered what he was saying.
While touting the possibilities of self-employment for sugar workers, can the PM point to any concrete initiative implemented by his government in this regard? Wales was shut down almost a year ago and, at this point in time, not one single success story is known, but we well know the misery and hopelessness that stalks the villages. In such circumstances, where hardships have multiplied, the PM’s utterances do not give the sugar workers much hope, if any at all. Assuming that the PM is reflecting the administration’s views, and not just those of his party, then that leaves the impression that it is not really serious about the plans for sugar workers who have been cut loose from their employment.
The PM then speaks about sugar workers’ children wanting to go to university or seeking technology-type jobs. This indeed may be true. But, how relevant is it today when those children’s parents are laid off and cannot earn and thus may not be able to upkeep them in school. In fact, one worker is quoted in the December 2 Kaieteur News as saying “My view is that my children gon got to come out of school…” The dream of attending university or getting a technology-like job may like the promise of a ‘Good Life’ now be beyond the reach of many, many sugar workers’ children. A rug has been pulled from under their feet. Clearly the PM’s column has shown his chameleon-like qualities. Today, while he justifies, unashamedly, the cutting down of the sugar industry and the laying off of thousands in the May 6, 2012 issue of Stabroek News, Mr Nagamootoo was saying himself and his party are “…a friend of the sugar workers union. We are a friend of the sugar workers and we are there to strengthen your backbone”. What a friend indeed!