Hundreds of former sugar workers who were laid off from the Rose Hall Estate last year staged a protest yesterday to press for severance payments.
With the support of family members as well as representatives of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), the workers braved heavy rainfall and marched along the Canje main road to press their demands.
Many stressed that they were frustrated at their current situation after the closure of the estate and many noted that they were also still waiting on additional payments that had been promised for those who had worked for over 10 years with the sugar corporation.
The protest came less than a week after Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder told the head of the Central Corentyne Chamber of Commerce during a meeting in Black Bush Polder that the finance minister is presently “scraping” together funds for severance payments to workers.
Holder had said that some $5 billion is needed to pay the workers formerly attached to estates which halted operations on December 29th.
Despite the heavy showers yesterday, the protesters, who numbered over 300, were insistent on proceeding with their march although GAWU organisers gave them the option of turning around at a mid-point. They wanted to let their voices be heard throughout the Canje area.
One former estate worker, Budandranauth Brijlall, told Stabroek News that he felt trapped since he has not received his severance payment nor has he been able to secure another job in order to pay his bills at the end of the month. “What lil bit we get, we got to use because we na got nothing more. When that done, what will we get?” he questioned.
He said that it is “heartbreaking” to know that no definite date has been given for severance payments to be made. “We got to get things to cook too. This gon’ make life hard,” he said.
According to Brijlall, the workers are also awaiting long service payments, which were promised to them last week. He said that he and other workers were hoping the payments for their more than 10 years of service would “hold them over” until they receive their severance pay, supposedly at the end of the month. “Them supposed to pay we 10 years last week. Them say this week now. We waiting again,” said the Canje resident.
Brijlall, a father of two who worked at the estate for over 29 years as an allocation checker, explained that he was distraught at the closure since he was hoping to work until retirement.
Kennard Budhram, 59, another one of the affected workers, said he was looking for work but he noted that jobs are not available. “I don’t know how we will live,” said the father of one, who is supporting one of his children who attends an A-grade high school in the region. He said the future for his child’s education is uncertain as he is not sure if he will be able to support his schooling. “I will work hard and look for something but I don’t know what will happen. School and everything expensive. I don’t know, man,” said the unemployed man.
Another former worker, Rajindranauth Kedharnauth, who worked at the Rose Hall Estate for over 32 years, stated that he is a father of four but has to take care of three children who are still dependent on him. “I last work on December 7. We have to eat. We have to wear. I have to provide for them. It is very hard,” he said.
Kedharnauth added that everyone needs to come together and “fight” in order for the workers to receive their severance payments.
The man further explained that it is very difficult to find a job, while noting that two of his children have since graduated with CSEC subjects but have not yet been able to secure jobs for themselves.
“Is like I can’t help them and they can’t help we ’cause all of us now in the same boat,” he said, while becoming emotional.
Kedharnauth stressed that in order to pay his bills to avoid basic necessities being snatched from his children, he will continue to search for a job.
Jeffrey West, who was employed at the Rose Hall Estate for some six years, noted that his last day working at the estate was December 28th. He said he too is now left to seek other employment, which is much easier said than done. “We are all trying but we are really depending on our severance pay to assist us,” he added.
Deonand Mohabir, 51, of Canefield Village, East Canje, Berbice, explained that presently his wife and three children are his main concerns and he stressed that he needs his severance payment to take care of them. He did, however, note that he has invested the “lil bit money” he had saved in livestock in order to be able to provide food and basic amenities for his family in case the government does not deliver on its promise of paying the workers their severance. He added that once paid his severance he intends to invest more in his “stock” as well as to save in case of an emergency.
Another worker, Baidwattie Sookdeo, noted that she is in a state of “frustration” as she has no income presently. “…At the end of the month, you get over $20,000 bills coming in. How am I going to pay that then?” she said. “It really hard. Everybody did depend on this industry and now I feel I get a wound when I get my letter. I feel really hurt. Workers get children to send to school, mortgage to pay,” she added.
Another young worker noted that he is presently on the hunt for another job. Bhomesh Kumar, 29, stated that he is “looking for any job.” “Every day we looking work, because we deh home doing nothing. It is really frustrating,” he said, while adding that the situation has been compounded by the fact that the workers do not know exactly when they will receive their severance payments.
Meanwhile, GAWU President Komal Chand, during a speech to the gathering, said workers need to come together in their numbers to “fight this battle” in order to ensure they receive the severance packages they deserve.
Additionally, Chand told the former workers that government officials have been lying to them. “We did a response last week and we showed that the debt of the sugar industry is not $82 billion but is $17 billion. $32 billion they got from workers’ pension. You severing the workers. How many workers you have and if you got the pension money why don’t you use it to pay the workers?” he questioned.
Chand noted that the government chose to close the estates based on claims that GuySuCo is in major debt, including some $7 billion owed to the Guyana Revenue Authority. Chand angrily questioned why it was okay for the government to “write off” billions in debt for other companies but not do the same for GuySuCo, upon which thousands of workers and their families depend.
Chand also highlighted that the governing APNU+AFC coalition had campaigned on the promise that it would ensure certain increases for sugar workers once elected to power. However, he said the new government instead “took away your incentives, your API [Annual Performance Incentive] that we won 17 years ago, and no wage increase.”
Chand stressed that the union welcomes everyone who wishes to stand in solidarity with the sugar workers.
The protesters were not allowed to play music during their march as has been done in the past. According to information gathered, while GAWU did receive a permit from the police, verbal instructions were given to the officer at the scene to prohibit the workers from playing their songs while marching.