Guyana Power and Light Inc. (GPL) is one of the most hated utility companies in Guyana. Although, is there any utility company that is not largely disliked in this country? GTT, Digicel and GWI all fail us, mainly because of poor service. It is frustrating that we do not get the full benefits of what we pay for and often our complaints do not result in improvements in the quality of services, which is especially true of those who have a monopoly.
GPL is primarily loathed because there is a seemingly endless deficiency where electricity supply is concerned. “Blackout” is undoubtedly one of the most familiar terms in Guyana as even young children are aware of what it means. Constantly in our conversations the blackout phenomenon angers and frustrates us. I still wonder how in countries with millions of people they manage to keep the lights on 24/7, but in our Guyana with less than a million people, it seems an impossible task at this point in our history.
But despite all the animosity many citizens feel for GPL, the company does employ many Guyanese and the brave men and women who work tirelessly to ensure that it continues its operations must be commended.
Still, some of those employed by the establishment are not happy. And unfortunately, the issue is not new. Sometime ago, I wrote about the dissatisfaction of security guards employed by GPL with the working conditions at the company. Unfortunately, I have been informed that nothing has changed. Sadly, that suggests that the powers that be, do not fear their inefficiencies being exposed. It is also an indication that the security guards’ services are not valued, and they are largely seen as dispensable.
The guards have complained about wages. I perused one of their contracts and the guard is being paid $325 an hour, which amounts to $26,000 a fortnight if they work five eight-hour days. That amounts to $52,000 a month. Can we honestly say that that is a livable wage for most people? Although there are people who are making less in private employment, many are either supported elsewhere, have other jobs or live in abject poverty.
The guards have also complained about the duration of the contracts they are being granted. There was a time when there were two-year contracts, but in recent times one year, six-month and even three month contracts are being utilised. A large section of the GPL security guard force is made up of the elderly and it was suggested that the younger staff be given longer contracts, while the elderly could have shorter contracts.
Their working conditions are not ideal in some settings. There are instances where security guards must share huts that are often not in the best condition. In some locations, the distance from the guard huts to the washrooms leaves much to be desired. It is not safe, especially at nights, for women who make up a large section of the security force. They are given ice on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays. The ice is meant to serve as drinking water when it melts.
They are also only paid double time for work done on Sundays and six holidays out of the 15 that Guyana celebrates. The holidays they are paid double time on are Labour Day, Good Friday, Eid-ul-Adha, Easter Monday, Christmas Day and Phagwah, as stated in their contract.
In recent times, people have been called to work on their days off and if they are unable to do so they are required to give 24-hour notice. Of course, there are times when guards are forced to work two or three shifts because other guards would not have come to relieve them–this may also be due to the fact that many people do not stay long with the job because of the working conditions and low wages.
There are no meetings with superiors where the security guards can air their grievances, I was told. One might ask, why write about this issue? Why do the security guards not organise some form of protests? Where are the union representatives?
While it is stated in the contract under ‘Trade Union Membership’ that the acceptance of the contract does not prejudice their right to Trade Union Membership, the very next line states that taking or instigating any form of individual action while under contract could result in termination.
Before Minister Simona Broomes was moved from Ministry of Social Protection to the Ministry of Natural Resources, the guards revealed that the issues were brought to her attention and she had promised to look into it. However, because she was reassigned shortly thereafter, there was no follow up on that promise. Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo had also promised to look into it, I was also told.
The truth of the matter is, all Guyanese lives do not matter. I believe that the security guards are treated with disdain because their superiors do not see them as equals, believe that their voices do not matter and therefore do not respect them. They know that many of the people who become security guards might not have a college or university education; many are single parents who have no options or the elderly who also have no other options because the pension they might be receiving is not enough. In our society, also, many elders are helping to support grandchildren.
The GPL security guards are just one fraction of the working peoples in this country who slave day and night and are poorly treated and compensated. It is the same people politicians pursue when they want votes. It is the same people who are promised that they too will enjoy the good life.
Perhaps someone with the power to initiate changes in the security service at GPL will read these concerns raised and decide to investigate the matter and work towards improving the working conditions and wages of the security guards at GPL. And maybe other guard services that have similar issues would be inclined to also treat their employees better.
Security guards do matter. They are needed. Their lives are often at risk. Many do not have other options. The least that can be done is to provide comfortable working conditions and decent wages for them. They too must start enjoying the good life.