Kwayana, Andaiye, Bhagwan hammer gov’t on dismissal of thousands of sugar workers

Three foundation members of the WPA and prominent Guyanese: Eusi Kwayana, Andaiye and Moses Bhagwan have condemned the APNU+AFC government over the sacking of thousands of sugar workers without a plan for their future and warned that the administration is doomed to failure like its predecessors if it doesn’t recognize its “wrong turns”.

Writing in the `In the Diaspora’ column in yesterday’s Stabroek News, the trio also rapped the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), the party they have been identified with for decades, and which is part of the governing APNU+AFC coalition.

Noting that the establishment of the coalition promised changes in several major areas of national life, the three said that as foundation members of the WPA they have watched from the sidelines and with growing unease as the government “committed error after error”.

Some of these errors, they said, might have been attributable to the newness of the administration or the usual difficulties of a coalition government but that they were shocked beyond belief recently when severance notices were handed out to hundreds of sugar workers at the start of the Christmas season, without a plan regarding the future of the workers, their families, their communities, and the wider economy of the country.

“This disastrous decision cannot be explained away with reference to inexperience. It is callous, foolish, ill-advised and economically unfeasible. The economy of Guyana has revolved around sugar since 1815, when the decision was taken to create a one crop economy. In that vein, the diversity that enslaved Africans had introduced through the cultivation of provision grounds came under attack. Some normalcy was restored to the people’s economy through valiant struggles in the 1840s after the abolition of slavery when the village movement was formed. Over the long and protracted history of the second half of the 19th century, these villages supported the everyday existence of the mainly East Indian indentured sugar working communities. The wages from sugar workers resident in Indian and African villages was important to the survival of all the villages. The structure of economic and social relations in rural coastal Guyana is related to the integration of these two communities. For two hundred years, the wages paid to Indian and African workers on the sugar estates have helped in no small manner to sustain and bring vibrancy to every other industry and enterprise in Guyana, including the ice seller, the flutie producer, the hairdresser, the farmer, the haberdasher, the mechanic, the fisherman. This decision to shut down sugar is being taken as if it does not strike at the heart of the household and community economies of both those directly engaged in sugar production and those for whom there are ripple effects. This decision will affect every political constituency in the country. It will even affect the viability of the National Insurance Scheme (NIS)”, the trio contended.

They argued that the mass dismissals disrupt the micro economy of the working people, and are already affecting major sections of the country.

“We believe that Cabinet is duty bound to explain in plain language when the decision to issue severance letters was taken, when the decision to implement the decision to hand out severance letters by Guysuco became government policy, what were the consultations and deliberations and with whom, what alternatives were discussed, why Cabinet did not consider a more reasonable phased approach, why for instance proposals from citizens’ groups such as the National Farmers Organization for managed diversification were not given any attention and due consideration. Cabinet should also tell the public how much of the yearly subsidy was used to pay super salaries of Guysuco officials”, the trio asserted.

Their criticisms will be seen as even more damaging to the WPA whose co-leader Dr Clive Thomas is the current Chairman of Guysuco and is clearly backing the retrenchments.

Kwayana, Andaiye and Bhagwan said that the problems of the sugar industry are not new. They pointed out that as early as 1990 then President Desmond Hoyte had raised concerns about its future and had intimated the need for national consensus on the way forward for sugar. They said that this mostly fell on deaf ears, except for the WPA which made its position clear at the time. The WPA position then was that divestment of the industry should not mean and must not entail disposal of the sugar lands.  In 1990, they noted that Booker Tate was invited by Hoyte to manage the industry on a management contract, an arrangement that came to an end in 2009. From that point a new Guysuco management board was reinstated. The trio said that the current government owes the people of the country an explanation for why it maintained the structure of a top-heavy management board, “even now as thousands of sugar workers, who have known nothing but sugar, are being sent home with no viable plan for their future”.

In light of the tragic news of two reported suicides by sugar workers since the layoffs, and to lessen despondency among sugar working families, the trio said that it is well past the time for the government to fully explain its plans for the industry going forward.

“What plans, if any, are in place to meaningfully involve people in the communities in figuring out the future of sugar, the sugar lands, and the sugar assets?  The time is never too late to change course. Government is serious business”, they said.

“As a country we can do better.  The certainty that we could do better was the reason for the formation of the Working Peoples Alliance in 1974, and to see a government which includes the WPA falter on the most basic of ideals, gives us cause to pause and question. We think it necessary to remind our colleagues from the WPA in the government, that for decades our slogan was “BREAD AND JUSTICE.” Further, when the Economic Recovery Program (ERP) was put in place in 1989, the WPA called for investment in the people.  It was not for nothing that the people renamed the ERP the Empty Rice Pot. Today, the government is following through on the approach of its predecessor, and is investing in the top .5% of the population to the detriment of the people”, Kwayana, Andaiye and Bhagwan lamented.

They drew the attention of the government to its own Manifesto for the 2015 elections, where they noted it committed to “establish and entrench an inclusionary democracy through the appointment of a Government of National Unity which would create opportunities for the participation of citizens and their organisations in the management and decision-making processes of the state, with particular emphasis on the areas of decision-making that affect their well-being.” We ask the government, were these empty promises?” they questioned.

“We say now, and we say boldly, if this government does not recognise the wrong turns it has made, if it does not change course, if it does not embrace and lift up those most downtrodden among the population, it is doomed to failure like its predecessors”, they warned..

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