President David Granger yesterday said that thousands of retrenched sugar workers will get 50% of their severance pay by the end of this month and the remainder in the second half of the year.
His address to the nation which was also read by Prime Minister Moses Nagamoootoo in Parliament came amid growing calls and protests by workers, particularly in the Berbice sugar belt, for the payment of their severance considering that they had been terminated at the end of last year.
Cries of `shame’ from the opposition benches greeted the PM’s announcement yesterday that the severance would be paid in two instalments.
By law, the severance should be paid at the termination of employment and the failure of GuySuCo and the government to comply with this has raised eyebrows.
The government’s unpreparedness to pay the severance on behalf of the cash-strapped GuySuCo will also raise questions about its management of the sugar reforms it initiated in 2015. By its own admission the government was aware that the 4,000 workers would be let go of and having presented the 2018 budget on November 27, 2017 it still didn’t make provision for the estimated $5b severance.
In his address to the nation, Granger said that the Government is committed to the welfare of the sugar workers and their families and as a result has “estimated” for the expenditure of over $2 billion to provide for 50% of severance pay that is owed to all redundant workers by the end of this month, and the remaining 50% in the second half of the year. No further details were provided on the payment. The laid-off sugar workers have complained that they have not been getting answers from GuySuCo or the government on the severance payment.
Granger added that the Government has embarked on an extensive review of expenditure in every sector to the extent of reducing ministerial budgets in order to find funds to enable sugar workers to receive their severance pay. At a meeting with the Central Corentyne Chamber of Commerce on January 4th, Agriculture Minister Noel Holder had said that the Finance Ministry was “scraping” together the $5b severance.
The President further said that the government has also earmarked $100 million to provide small loans for entrepreneurial activities, “which could open opportunities for employment after leaving the sugar industry.”
During his address, he also emphasized that GuySuCo is not being dismantled but the government is “working actively to ameliorate the impact of retrenchment on workers’ livelihood.” As a result, he said that the sugar corporation has established an Alternative Livelihood Programme (ALP) that is aimed at providing support to the retrenched employees by enabling them to access available opportunities and function in other fields.
He added that GuySuCo has also embarked on the training of employees to operate in new fields across the industry such as the field workshop and providing other services. Granger pointed out that the sugar company has also engaged 500 employees from the West and East Demerara Estates and over 100 of them have indicated their willingness to be retrained in fields such as carpentry, masonry, plumbing, mechanical and electrical works, and in small business enterprises.
During his address, Granger noted, “The Guyana Sugar Corporation has been in a state of crisis for over 25 years and the government has acted resolutely and responsibly to protect the livelihood of workers, to preserve the viability of rural communities and prevent further financial depletion of the country’s treasury.”
He contended that the government, including the previous administrations, struggled to maintain the industry’s viability by engaging international advisory, technical and managerial corporations such as Booker-Tate Ltd., Bosch Projects (PTY) and Global Cane Sugar between 1992 and 2015. Booker-Tate was actually recruited by the former PNC government in 1990.
He cited other measures to maintain viability such as the erecting of a new factory at Skeldon, Corentyne, at a cost of US$121 million, the spending of $48.02 billion in financial support to the industry since 2011, and $32 billion over the last 30 months.
“The Government cannot sustain the sugar industry in its current state. It has had to make difficult choices in order to ensure the industry’s viability,” Granger said, while noting that GuySuCo’s earliest measures included the convening of a Commission of Inquiry into the state of the industry in October 2015.
Granger also said that the publishing of a state paper on the future of the industry in May 2017 and the creation of a Special Purpose Unit to manage the reform of the industry in June 2017 were all measures the government took.
“The Government is committed to making the industry efficient and competitive by consolidating cultivation in East Berbice at Albion, in West Berbice in Blairmont and West Demerara at Uitvlugt. The Corporation will aim at producing 147,000 tonnes annually, preserving three enlarged estates and protecting the jobs of over 11, 000,” Granger said.
Granger also added that the Government will continue to engage the stakeholders such as GuySuCo, the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU), the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE) and the workers.
“The Government is cognizant of the invaluable contribution of the sugar industry to the development of Guyana. The Government will continue to work towards returning the reformed sugar industry to profitability and improving the personal income of sugar workers while seeking to provide a good life for current and future generations,” Granger added.
GuySuCo had confirmed that approximately 4,000 workers across the industry would be without jobs by the end of December 31. Despite December 29, 2017 being the last working day for a majority of the retrenched workers, a large number of them had not received their severance pay.
Minister of Agriculture, Holder, had stated earlier this month that the workers would be paid by the end of the month but could not give a definitive date. He made no mention of two instalments.
In parliament yesterday, as PM Nagamootoo read the President’s address he had the full attention of the opposition members present. But when he got to the part of the address that the monies would be paid in two increments, the MPs cried `shame’ with Chief Whip Gail Teixeira and Komal Chand leading the intermittent shouts of ‘Are you not ashamed?’ and ‘Shame’. The chants continued with the shaking of heads by some opposition members until he was finished.
Later, Chand told reporters that he hopes government rethinks the decision and makes the payments soonest as it was both illegal to withhold severance and inhumane since the sugar workers have financial obligations that are already in arrears.
“I must say that the full bill is $5B. It is illegal to withhold the workers’ severance pay. The notice has expired as at 29th December so what they say that they are paying approximately half this month and the other half (in the) latter half this year is unfair, apart from not abiding with the law because workers are unable to earn at this time.
“The workers are without jobs and the severance pay they are hoping for to tide it over because they have loans to pay to different people; shop owners, banks etcetera. They are put at a greater disadvantage now and their high expectations are dashed. So we are insisting that government review its position and try to fulfill its commitment,” he added.
He reasoned that government now saying that it does not have all the monies to pay the severance is a callous move since workers and the union would have thought that since a major decision as retrenching over 4,000 workers was made, that the implications would have been looked at beforehand.
“That [not having money] should have been part of your consideration when you moved to the closure. You should have looked at what are the implications and requirements … and put things together beforehand,” he added.
He pointed to comments from Minister of State Joseph Harmon on the issue saying that Harmon’s position seemed more sensible than that of GuySuCo.
“If we are to go with V.P. Harmon, he made a statement that the withdrawal (of the estates) should be withdrawn until 2018. Of course he didn’t mean the first month of 2018 because we are here but that had more merit and was more humane. Don’t send the people off yet, you seem not to be ready,” he said as he stressed the legal obligation by government to pay the monies.
Chand said the union was doing all in its power to assist workers during this “hard time” and has been facilitating counselling sessions with laid-off workers with the aim of giving them hope so that they know that all is not lost.