The Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) has declared that the government’s promises to pay dismissed sugar worker severance in two installments is “not good enough,” and that the failure to budget for the payouts is a worrying sign of intensified attacks on workers’ rights.
In a press statement yesterday, GTUC called for sobriety and integrity to guide decision-making on the sugar industry’s future, while saying that poor budgetary allocation on the matter is indicative that “no premium has been placed on the concerns of the workers.”
Minister of State Joseph Harmon disclosed on Friday that only $500 million was allocated by the government in the 2018 national budget for severance payments for sugar workers when roughly $5 billion is needed.
According to the GTUC, government must be mindful that claims of being conscious and caring about the affected workers would not be deemed credible and sincere if not supported by action.
“Severance should have been paid at time of termination, so these workers can move on with their lives,” it stated, while stressing that when the relationship is severed between an employer and employee, industrial relations practice dictates that the employee hands over to the employer all properties of the employer and that the employer hand over forthwith all monies accrued and owing to the employee.
The GTUC explained that the natural occurrence with closures is that there will be loss of jobs but it argued that GuySuCo’s failure to pay the workers their prescribed benefit at least at the pay day immediately following their date of termination speaks to a “callous approach” to the workers’ welfare.
Specific mention was made of the former PPP/C administration’s similar actions in 2010, when GuySuCo refused to pay severance to the affected workers at Diamond Estate.
The union reminded that in order to acquire this benefit, workers sought the service of attorney Khemraj Ramjattan, who is now Vice President and Minister of Public Security.
“It was only after the deprivation of benefit was brought before the court by Ramjattan that the Bharrat Jagdeo Government intervened and had GuySuCo pay the workers,” GTUC noted.
It added that in 2018, though the political tables have turned, behaviour has not changed. It equated the failure to pay severance to the breaking of a contractual relationship and noted that if the sugar workers were private sector employees, the Labour Department would have demanded that they be paid or placed the employer before the court.
Acknowledging that tough decisions have to be made, GTUC, however, expressed the view that it is not too late for government and GuySuCo to rethink the strategy being presently employed and sit with the sugar unions, political opposition and other stakeholders to hammer out decisions on the way forward.
“Sobriety and integrity must inform discourse, planning and actions, taking into consideration fundamental rights, micro and macro impacts,” it stated, before adding that the amount of workers being laid off requires a plan to cushion the socio-economic impact on them, and the institutions and communities that rely on their income.
GTUC also drew attention to the skepticism being displayed in relation to various pronouncements as to the number being affected, being placed in alternative jobs or being transferred to state agencies.
This skepticism, it argued, is a result of the absence of engagement and
involvement by the workers’ representative in their welfare as sugar unions seem unaware of what is happening.
For the GTUC, the debacle of the sugar industry is mostly due to “the arrogance and belief by politicians that they have all the answers to every problem, and how they feel about issues is the only thing that matters.”
It cautioned that continued refusal to engage with all stakeholders not only to inform but garner feedback in addressing the dilemma will breed bad blood and rend the nation further asunder.
President David Granger on Wednesday last promised the laid-off sugar workers that they will receive 50% of their severance payments by the end of this month and the remainder in the second half of the year. This means that around $2.5 billion will be needed for the payment this month and it has led government to say that it is looking at making cuts in spending to finance the payout.
This has, however, not found favour with stakeholders. The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) has declared the move to be illegal under the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act though the act places no timeframe on severance payments.
At a protest held in Skeldon, Upper Corentyne, on Thursday, the President of GAWU Komal Chand stated that the government’s announcement on Wednesday is a violation of the law. He told the protestors, “When you become redundant you are entitled to your severance pay… it is your legal right.”
He further added that the President of the country needs to respect the law. He said, “You cannot give them half and hold back half, the [workers] are supposed to get their severance pay at the expiry of their letters. Two weeks already pass.”