The Working People’s Alliance (WPA) says it supports the restructuring of the sugar industry and promised to “be vigilant” in ensuring that the government keeps its promise to pay the remaining severance to sugar workers in a timely manner.
The National Assembly on Friday 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.
In a press statement on Friday the WPA which is a part of A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) said that it “fully supports the restructuring of Guyana’s sugar industry” but called on the APNU+AFC government of which it is a part to pursue a restructuring process that is “well thought through and done in consultation with the workers and their representatives.”
“We call on government to observe all labour laws and collective agreements in dealing with the separation benefits of displaced workers,” the statement said.
According to the party it is regrettable that funds for the severance payments were not catered for in the 2018 budget, but government must be commended for acting to ensure speedy payment of 50% of the amount promised. $500 million of the $4.24 billion needed was budgeted for in 2018.
“While we support the restructuring of the industry, WPA has always held the position that it should not be done at the expense of the workers’ welfare. We still hold strongly to that position. We believed that special care should be taken to ensure that where possible workers are relocated to other sections of the industry or sectors of the economy or be adequately compensated. It is against this background that WPA supported the Commission of Inquiry and endorsed most of its recommendations. We also supported the subsequent State Paper presented to the government by GuySuCo,” the statement noted.
A key WPA official, Dr Clive Thomas is the Chairman of GuySuCo.
Acknowledging that concern over the future of the sugar industry is not new, the WPA saluted the government for taking the very bold step of right-sizing the industry in light of the political and ethnic sensitivities surrounding the industry.
The party said that in doing so the current administration has broken the cycle of political manipulation by the PPP and its allies and joined other countries in the hemisphere in squarely facing the challenges of sustaining an industry based on government subsidies.
“Poor economies such as ours cannot carry that burden forever,” the party stressed, explaining that it makes no economic sense to continue to produce sugar at a cost that far exceeds the market price since in the end, financing the subsidy has had a negative effect on the rest of the economy becoming one of the barriers to economic growth.
Reminding of its origins as a party grounded in the defence of the poor and the powerless, WPA assured that it would never be part of any plan that undermines workers’ interests and urged the workers to ensure that their issues and positions are made known to the GuySuCo Board through their Union representatives.
Earlier this month, three founding members of the WPA, Eusi Kwayana, Andaiye and Moses Bhagwan criticised the APNU+AFC government over the sacking of thousands of sugar workers without a plan for their future and warned that the administration is doomed to failure like its predecessors if it doesn’t recognize its “wrong turns”.
The trio also rapped the WPA.
“As a country we can do better. The certainty that we could do better was the reason for the formation of the Working Peoples Alliance in 1974, and to see a government which includes the WPA falter on the most basic of ideals, gives us cause to pause and question. We think it necessary to remind our colleagues from the WPA in the government, that for decades our slogan was “BREAD AND JUSTICE.” Further, when the Economic Recovery Program (ERP) was put in place in 1989, the WPA called for investment in the people. It was not for nothing that the people renamed the ERP the Empty Rice Pot. Today, the government is following through on the approach of its predecessor, and is investing in the top .5% of the population to the detriment of the people”, Kwayana, Andaiye and Bhagwan lamented.
The WPA statement on Friday said “We are satisfied that GuySuCo has gone to great length to ensure that the sugar workers at the lower levels are adequately compensated”. The party said that it also rejected the accusations levelled at GuySuCo’s Board that consultations were not held with workers and their representatives on plans to right size the operations since it is widely known that GuySuCo had on numerous occasions initiated discussions with the workers’ representatives on the future of the industry.
The statement reiterates promises made by GuySuCo to develop diversified enterprises to complement revenue from sugar and called on the company to make the requisite investment in people, technology and managerial systems to sustain the competitive advantage of sugar and to stabilize employment at around 11, 000 workers.
Additionally government was urged by the WPA to give GuySuCo the autonomy to make business decisions free from political interference and to ensure that managers are held accountable for those decisions.
Meanwhile, sugar workers have been asked by the WPA to demonstrate their capacity to develop alternative employment that does not depend on cheap labour.
According to the party this has previously been displayed when ‘king’ sugar was in economic distress from manipulation of sugar prices, changes in technology and trade policies or erosion of market access. At that point “people demonstrated resilience in adding new economic activities like rice, gold and balata,” the statement noted.
Acknowledging that the income from employment in sugar is used to sustain the rural economy the party drew attention to peasant cane farmers at Uitvlugt who have increased their supply of cane from 0 % to 58 % under GuySuCo’s Farmers’ Land Leased Initiative.
WPA recognized that GuySuCo has also launched its own Alternative Livelihood Programme for affected workers and called on government to provide the necessary institutional and financial support to enable displaced workers to develop sustainable livelihoods in which Government cannot be the only stakeholder.
“WPA supports private sector initiatives that promote economic linkage and provide quality jobs for working people,” the statement noted, adding that in the long term it hoped to see GuySuCo as a diversified publicly traded entity financed and managed by Guyanese in much the same way as Banks DIH, DDL or Sterling Products Limited.