Gov’t meets unions on sugar industry’s future

Following criticism over government’s handling of the restructuring of GuySuCo, President David Granger and members of his Cabinet (at left) met yesterday with the leadership of sugar workers’ unions GAWU and NAACIE (at right) to discuss the future of the industry (Ministry of the Presidency photo)

Following criticism over government’s handling of the restructuring of the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo), President David Granger and members of his Cabinet yesterday met with the leadership of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU) and the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE) to discuss the future of the sugar industry.

The meeting took place at the Ministry of the Presidency, where discussions were held for more than two hours.

Afterward, the ministry said the parties were able to find common ground and the unions agreed to fully cooperate with the government to find a solution to benefit all stakeholders.

The government had been strongly criticised for allowing the severing of over 4,000 GuySuCo workers without having options in place for them or evaluating the social impact of the job losses on their communities. It had also been pilloried on its unpreparedness to pay severance immediately to all the workers.

According to the Ministry of the Presidency, President Granger told the unions that the meeting was the start of talks between the two sides so that an agreement could be reached at the earliest possible time. He also said it is a time for all stakeholders to come together, putting aside all prejudices and partisan interests and work for the national good. “This is a national matter. It is not a partisan one. It involves human beings, households and families. We are conscious of the foresighted nature and we cannot ignore the context of the issue that we face. We cannot continue something that is not competitive. We are bailing out the industry at $1 billion per month and that is simply not sustainable. If workers have to go home, then we all lose, as it will have an impact on the economic growth of the country. Government will not win, the unions will not win and the workers will not win if the industry is crippled. We will all lose. Nobody is against the sugar industry. The government and the unions should engage until the issue is resolved. Let us use this opportunity to show flexibility and ensure that livelihoods are saved,” the president was quoted as saying.

Granger further noted that while there may be a difference of opinion during the discussions, he did not believe in walkouts or refusals to cooperate and he added that it is up to both the government and the unions to ensure that they work together to formalise a solution, which will positively impact the lives of the workers.

‘Opportunities for alternative skills’

Minister of Social Protection Amna Ally, who was also present at the meeting, said that her ministry was deeply concerned with the realities of the current situation facing GuySuCo and the affected workers and was ready to provide any assistance that it could.

In this regard, she noted that the Board of Industrial Training (BIT) as well as the Port Mourant Training Centre will be utilised to train and upgrade the skills of the workers. Addition-ally, she noted that the service of the Micro Credit Unit at the ministry is available to lend assistance, as there are micro-financing available for start-up projects.

“We are cognisant that many workers will now have to explore the idea of entering a new realm of employment and already we have given great consideration in a number of areas to go forward. The public health facilities in various locations will still be of service to persons working in those areas. The Board of Industrial Training has been conducting training in several areas, such as engineering, building and masonry, carpentry, information and communication technology, forestry, home economics and health services. This certainly will provide opportunities for alternative skills by equipping persons with the necessary knowledge, skills and training relevant for employment. These types of training will be continuous. In addition to that, we will collaborate with the Ministry of Natural Resources to provide additional training opportunities with an oil and gas focus and the Port Mourant Training Centre will be utilised for this purpose,” she was quoted as saying by the ministry.

Meanwhile, GAWU President Komal Chand said that he was pleased with the outcome of the meeting, while noting that the union was committed to working with the administration to draft feasible solutions.

“We have listened and we are satisfied that you are concerned with the issues. We are ready to work along with the government to explore the options and we are going to give our best to see the situation out. You are right that there are no winners in this and we are willing… We are certainly pleased with this meeting. This is the first meeting [for the year] we have been able to have with the government and we believe that the meeting took place in a positive atmosphere and we recognise that the government itself pays attention and I think that it is a good beginning. That is certainly [an] important ground rule that we dialogue, that we talk and try to find an answer for the way forward. We are pleased. From GAWU, we are very pleased and it spells out that the future engagement are in the interest of the workers, the industry and the country,” he said.

Minister of State Joseph Harmon was also present at the meeting and he said that the government was pleased that both sides came prepared and were pragmatic in the circumstances, recognising that the interest of the industry and the workers were paramount. “The president himself set the tone for the meeting and indicated that what he wanted to see is both sides working in the best interest of the worker and in the best interest of the industry. We have committed ourselves in government to allocate the necessary resources to ensure that workers who are severed that they receive their severance pay. I believe that the meeting was characterised by good faith on both sides and that the unions were very forthright and represented the interest of the workers and we appreciate the way in which the meeting went,” he said.

The meeting was also attended by Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, Vice-President and Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan, Vice-President and Minister of Indigenous Peoples’ Affairs Sydney Allicock, Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder, Minister of Finance Winston Jordan and Minister within the Ministry of Finance Jaipaul Sharma.

The sides will meet again at a date to be determined, the ministry added.

Only last week, the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) had said it was not too late for government and GuySuCo to rethink the strategy being 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. 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.

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