By Lincoln Lewis
The state of industrial relations in Guyana gives cause for considerable concern. It would not surprise me if some respondents react to this assessment by raising questions regarding “what went before.” That does not concern me. Every administration has to be held accountable for its own performance. What concerns me is whether there is evidence that those currently with the authority are addressing the problem. If there has been an effort in that regard I am not overly impressed by its outcomes.
Building a convivial industrial relations environment requires a set of conditions in which the involved parties are committed to demonstrating a mutual respect for each other’s rights. That, all to frequently, is not the case in Guyana. A smooth industrial relations environment is premised on a relationship that is guided by rules and by time-honoured principles. That smoothness has to be underpinned, as well, by a sense of principle by the men and women who are part of that arrangement. That is the only way that a convivial industrial relations environment can exist. One might add that in the final analysis, such a relationship will redound to the benefit of both parties. On the other hand, the absence of these conditions is a sure recipe for conflict.
How our industrial relations system is built
Guyana’s industrial relations regime is based on principles set out by the International Labour Organization (ILO). It is tripartite in nature. It embraces, above all else, respect for the rights of the workers, not least the right of workers to associate with a trade union of choice, a right that is embedded in (Article 147) the Constitution of Guyana. There are other corresponding responsibilities and obligations too. The government has an overarching responsibility to protect the rights of citizens and groups through laws and through the policies which it lays down. Employer and trade union alike, have a collective responsibility to contribute to a stable and convivial work environment. (Trade Union Recognition Act). This relationship is built on mutual respect for each other’s roles.
Challenges to a stable industrial environment
There are examples of instances in which the posture of the government threatens the stability of the industrial relations environment. Take the 2017 engagements between the government and the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) on Public Servants wages and salaries. No agreement having been arrived after more than five sittings the government simply announced the unilateral imposition of an arbitrary increase. That is not ILO-drive industrial relations practice. It is, in fact, a violation of ILO Conventions (87), (98) and (151).
It is much the same with the Guyana Teachers’ Union. The 2017 ‘back and forth’ exchanges between the Ministry of Education characterized by the amateurish behaviour of the subject Minister resulted in an impasse which, to the Ministry’s considerable embarrassment, resulted in the intervention of the President. After that, and rather than simply seeking to set an atmosphere in which negotiations could resume along the track of orthodox collective bargaining, a Committee was created to make recommendations. This kind of behaviour has no place in orthodox industrial relations practice. There is, too, the instance of GAWU in the context of the current tribulations of the sugar industry. Rather than engage the workers through their union, management has opted to engage in a publicity exercise that has included courting confrontation with the unions. The condition of the sugar industry requires that there be careful contemplation, engagement and shrewd decision-making with regard to its future, not political theatre. Had the practice of tripartite engagement been in place here the tension and animosity would have been significantly reduced. Frankly, it has to be said that it was the disinclination of government and the GuySuco management to engage the unions , the unions’ entreaties notwithstanding that created bad blood and suspicion during the unfolding events in the sugar industry in recent months.
For sheer contempt for the laws of the host country and disregard for the rights and the dignity of its workers, however, it is the thuggish behaviour of the Russian management of the Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc. (BCGI) that takes the cake. From its utter contempt for the rights of its Guyanese employees to its refusal to accept and acknowledge the Guyana Bauxite & General Workers’ Union (GB&GWU) as the legitimate representative of the workers, the Russians have, over the years of their majority shareholding in the company behaved like Tzarist overlords, riding roughshod over the workers and demonstrating a thinly disguised contempt for the authority of the government. All of this is buttressed by a weak state-run labour administration which appears to have no clue as to just how to rein in the Russians. Latterly, the Russians’ contempt for the labour machinery within the Ministry of Social Protection appears to have extended to the Ministry of Finance given the fact that up until now the Agreement regarding the reimbursement to the workers of sums deducted as taxes from earnings accrued from overtime work done in 2015 and 2016 is still to be honoured. Frankly, the incumbents overseeing labour within the Ministry have demonstrated a pathetic timidity (and all too frequently a sense of simply not knowing what to do) in their dealings with the Russians at BCGI. If incidentally, there appears to be a sustained reference to “the Russians” when referring to BCGI, that is because no Guyanese within the company has a single iota of ‘say’ in what happens there.
While I understand only too well the significance of foreign investment to the development of our local industries and to employment creation and wealth generation and employment creation, I strongly believe that successive political administrations have literally bred a monster by ignoring, nay, encouraging the excesses of the RUSAL managers who are in control at BCGI. Insofar as previous political administrations are concerned, they have been nothing more (or less) than apologists for the inexcusable excesses of the Russian bosses who, over the years, have succeeded in contemptuously dismissing the tenets of principled industrial relations whilst cowing some of the company’s workers into a state of abject fear and intimidation. I salute the courage amongst those workers, my friends and my brothers who have stood between the Russians and the subjugation of the entire work force at BCGI.
As for the present political administration, it has simply sat around a table with the Russians, the two sides mouthing platitudes but failing to reach understandings that make a difference for the workers and for the country’s interests. Regretfully, I have frequently been of the impression that those personages currently in charge of overseeing labour relations in our country have no clue whatsoever as to the nature of their responsibilities and just how those responsibilities should be executed.
There is, too, the case with the Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company (GTT) and the Guyana Postal and Telecommunications Workers Union (GPTUW). More than a year ago the latter applied to the Labour Department for the establishment of an arbitration tribunal to address the issue of wages and salaries. Here again, and in a manner that is reflective of an insensitivity to the interests of the workers, the response of the political administration as been underpinned by a posture that has stymied rather than hastened the process. Meanwhile, GTT’s management, clearly emboldened by the posture of government has terminated workers under the pretext that their jobs have become redundant. At the same time those very jobs have been filled by contract workers. While the Union has moved to the High Court and a decision has been handed down GTT has not batted an eyelid. The government, meanwhile, appears to have embraced the option of simply looking the other way.
The struggle of the Sweeper/Cleaners
While the recent announcement the government has finally made a disclosure with regard to adjusted salaries and some other conditions of service for Sweeper/ Cleaners, this should be seen as a typical case of justice delayed being justice denied. The reality is that nothing can retrieve the years of sacrifice that these workers, numbered in most instances amongst the poorest of the poor, had to make before the present administration – after a long and needless period of prevarication and delay – finally agree to change their circumstances. It is nothing to crow about. What we are likely to discover is that such increases as they have been granted have long been swallowed up by the relentlessly rising cost of living. Here, it has to be said that the persistence of the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) in engaging government on this issue for many years is to be commended. On a personal note, I would wish to see that level of persistence (and a good deal more militancy) demonstrated in other instances where the nation’s Public Servants continue to be denied their just deserts. Frankly, I sincerely believe that successive political administrations in Guyana have held Public Servants in low esteem and that many of the inefficiencies in the Public Service are, in fact, responses to the view held by Public Servants they really don’t count for much.
Some positives amidst the setbacks
While the aforementioned occurrences do not tell the whole story, they are more than sufficient to paint a legitimate picture of an inhospitable industrial relations climate in which government continues to display a high level of indifference. I contend that they are sufficient to paint a revealing picture. Collectively, they give cause for considerable concern and their only purpose is to acknowledge the realities that face us in the hope that they can precipitate some measure of change.
There are interesting examples of cordial employer/ employee relations in some non-government agencies that provide examples worthy of emulation. While the absence of work stoppages or outside intervention does not point to an absence of differences, what it points to are examples of employer/employee differences that can be settled through internal dialogue.
Engagement – rather than posturing – more often than not, yields positive results. It is a lesson which successive administrations in Guyana have still not learnt. The absence of an understanding of that reality continues to have a negative impact on our industrial relations climate. That has to change.
Lincoln Lewis is General Secretary of both the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) and the Guyana Bauxite & General Workers’ Union. (GB&GWU)