House approves $1.93 billion for sugar severance

-over 1,600 workers to get full amount by end of month

Winston Jordan

The National Assembly yesterday approved nearly $2 billion to facilitate full severance by the end of January for a little more than 1,600 of the 4,763 sugar workers that have been made redundant.

These workers represent those sent home by the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) who are entitled to severance payouts of $500,000 or less. The other workers will receive 50% of their severance as previously promised by the APNU+AFC government. A total of $2.431 billion is set to be paid by January 31st, with an additional $2 billion set to be paid by December 31st.

January’s payments will be made possible by the passage yesterday of the first financial paper of the year, a supplementary provision first laid for $1.75 billion but which after amendments were passed by the National Assembly was increased to $1.931 billion.

Minister of Finance Winston Jordan, who tabled both the paper and the amendments, explained to the House that several Cabinet members had met with representatives of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU) and the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE) earlier in the day. He noted that at that meeting, the government suggested increasing the supplemental provision by $181 million to facilitate the full payment to some of the workers and therefore he was presenting the amendments with Cabinet’s approval.

Jordan tabled the amendment in keeping with Standing Order 76 after nearly one hour of debate on the $1.75 billion provision. Standing Order 76 provides for the amendment of heads of estimates in the Committee of Supply one day after they have been placed on the notice paper provided that the amendments are submitted in writing.

In keeping with these provisions, opposition Chief Whip Gail Teixeira rose to object to the tabling of the amendment, while arguing that it would be prudent for the sitting to be suspended so that the amendments could be properly submitted. However, Minister of Natural Resources Raphael Trotman, a former Speaker of the National Assembly, instead moved a motion to have the relevant standing order suspended and the amendments passed.

Trotman’s motion was carried and the amended estimates passed by acclamation. Despite the lack of an opposing voice, several on the government side of the House called for a division where each member is called upon to voice their vote.

Though Speaker Barton Scotland advised that it would be an abuse of the Standing Orders to call for a division in this case, the call grew in volume until the peal of the assembly bell rang through the corridors.

As the Deputy Clerk called the name of each parliamentarian present the volume in the chamber once again began to rise as the members on the government side thumped their desks in approval. The sound reached a crescendo when, with the last affirmative vote, it was revealed that all 47 parliamentarians present had voted for the passage of the provisions.

Meanwhile, the hour-long debate on the originally laid estimates yielded a different kind of noise as parliamentarians both on and off the floor raised their voice in raucous discord.

Contradiction

The Speaker was forced to make liberal use of the gavel when Teixeira questioned the content of a message delivered to the nation by President David Granger on severance pay for the former sugar workers.

Just after the Assembly resolved itself into the Committee of Supply to consider the financial paper, Teixeira charged that the contents of Granger’s message were in contradiction to information provided to the press by Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder.

Holder had told reporters on Monday that government had invested $48 billion in GuySuCo since 2011, while Granger had said that $48.2 billion had been invested since 2011 and $32 billion since 2015.

The opposition maintained that Granger had told the Nation that $80 billion had been invested in the sugar industry and challenged the Minister to clarify his statement.

It took more than 10 minutes and several barbed comments from both sides before the minister clarified that the President’s statement meant that $48 billion was invested since 2011 with $32 billion of that sum having been invested since 2015.

The Minister was however clearly able to state that a total of 4,763 sugar workers have been severed. Of that number 1,851 are from the Skeldon Estate, 1,181 from Rose Hall, 1,480 from the East Demerara Estate and 251 from Wales. He later indicated that as of December 29th, all sick-leave and overtime payments have been paid to the workers while sickness benefits and holiday with pay would be paid after the first crop.

Challenged by opposition parliamentarian Komal Chand, who is also President of the sugar union GAWU, as to whether the number of severed workers from Wales was not 375 rather than 251, Holder noted that the 375 was not referenced as that matter was currently sub judice (before the court).

The supplementary provision paper also noted that $500 million which had been allocated in the 2018 budget is earmarked for severance, making the total January payout $2.431 billion.

Holder was challenged to explain why government budgeted only a fraction of the sum required. To a refrain of “Why? Why? Why?” and an entreaty by PPP/C parliamentarian Clement Rohee to “admit you made a mistake,” Holder in response to a question from parliamentarian Juan Edghill provided the House with a timeline.

He noted government was informed by GuySuCo on November 30th, 2017 of the number of workers to be severed and on December 18th, 2017 of the amount needed for severance. This memo also recommended that severance be paid by January 31st.

At that time, GuySuCo requested $4.21 billion for severance payments, an amount which has now been corrected to $4.563 billion due to the increased number of senior staff severed.

With questions about the timeline settled, attention then turned to the legality of deferring severance payments as well as making these payments in installments. Opposition parliamentarian Gillian Burton-Persaud, a long-time trade unionist, questioned whether government was familiar with the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Ac,t which specifies the terms under which employment may be terminated, including the payment of all outstanding sums in lieu of notice.

In response, the minister noted that he was familiar with the law and the notices had been served.

Asked to state which law guided government when deciding to pay the severance in installments, Holder noted that it was a decision made in keeping with “financial necessity” without consultation with the various unions represented.

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