Protesters greeted Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo and other government officials at stormy meetings yesterday at Canje and Skeldon where former sugar workers were told that they will begin receiving severance from Tuesday but there was little information on alternative employment.
The sugar industry has been convulsed by the severing of 4,763 workers at the end of December last year. Of that number, 1,851 are from the Skeldon Estate and 1,181 from Rose Hall. The APNU+AFC government had been accused of not reaching out to the workers, particularly in the Berbice sugar belt and failing to come up with options for them. Nagamootoo’s visit and a similar one to Enmore yesterday by another ministerial team (see story on page 14) were the first outreaches since the redundancies were announced last month by the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo).
Nagamootoo, accompanied by Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder and Minister in the Ministry of Finance Jaipaul Sharma, told the former sugar workers in Skeldon and Canje that over 1,000 persons would receive their entire severance package from Tuesday. At both locations, the PM and his team were greeted by dozens of irate protesters, while others attempted to disrupt his speeches. Some of the ex-sugar workers also stormed out of the meetings.
However, Nagamootoo continued with his presentation at both locations and announced that from Tuesday persons whose severance payments amounted to lower than $500,000 would receive their entire package. The others will receive a portion of their severance package and the remainder in the second half of the year. The PM, who hails from Whim on the Corentyne, said that 1,600 persons are expected to receive either their entire severance package or half.
Nagamootoo told the gatherings that the government will begin to cut monies from ministries and travelling of government officials, among other things, to raise the entire sum to pay the sugar workers. However, he stressed that the money can only be paid to the sugar workers once government has it “…and then later in the year you will have the other half.” He added, “When we collect more revenues from people who are not paying their taxes, we will be able to advance money to GuySuCo and pay the other half”.
Since GuySuCo was not in a position to pay the severance, the government has been strongly criticised for not making adequate allocations for severance in the 2018 budget which was presented just weeks before the sugar corporation announced the thousands of redundancies.
Nagamootoo spoke at the Skeldon Community Centre Ground and the Rose Hall, Canje Community Centre Ground, where at both locations he was greeted by hundreds of protestors telling him that he was not welcomed in the region nor did he care for the former sugar workers, who were left jobless due to the closure of the estates.
As a former senior member of the opposition PPP, Nagamootoo had had a long association with sugar workers and had been seen as one of the most popular PPP executives on the Corentyne.
He told the persons who remained after the walkouts yesterday that the government is scouting for investors so as to create employment within the regions for the persons who were affected. He said, “We want investors to come and to create jobs, to operate the factories, to operate fields, whatever they want to do with it, so when an investor comes here in Skeldon they will still need workers”.
He also said, “And when investors come they will provide guaranteed employment to people who we are trying now, through cooperation with the Ministry of Business and other agencies, to send for retraining.”
He added, “The children of sugar workers, the government will ensure that the training school is taken over [so] that they can have a place to send their children to be trained so that they can meet the requirements of the new oil and gas industry…. By 2020 Guyana will be producing oil.”
The government has been flayed for not coming up with alternative livelihoods for workers from Wales to Skeldon even though it had been aware since the middle of 2015 of the dire straits that GuySuCo was in.
Nagamootoo also said that openings at the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority (NDIA) will be offered to the unemployed workers. He noted that estates will require people who will work with NDIA to “maintain the infrastructure, to maintain drainage and irrigation, so jobs will be available, jobs will be available to those who can man the pumps,” Nagamootoo said.
This statement jars with the announcement days ago that around 900 GuSuCo workers were being severed from the NDIA positions that they held.
During both presentations, Nagamootoo took a swipe at the opposition, charging that they are responsible for mismanaging GuySuCo while in government by appointing “politicians to run the sugar industry.”
He also charged that the opposition has been saying that the government closed estates on the basis of race. However, he said that this was far from the case and that the government was on the path of reforming the sugar corporation.
“We are protecting and saving three factories. 11,000 workers’ jobs are being protected, where the majority of workers are Indo-Guyanese,” he emphasised.
At both locations, workers who protested entered the compound to listen to the presenters. However, at Skeldon only a small number of the workers were able to fit into the community centre building. This caused an uproar as former workers declared that they wanted to hear. After close to 30 minutes of deliberations, a decision was made to bring the podium out of the building where the workers could all hear.
At Rose Hall, Canje workers who protested were met by police ranks upon entering the gates . However, they and Region Six Chairman David Armogan explained to the police that the protesters were former workers and their relatives who wanted to listen to the presenters. While the hundreds of persons were allowed to enter the ground they were kept behind a line of lawmen.
Several workers voiced concern that while the PM said the severance would be paid on Tuesday, the Agriculture Minister stated the date as Monday.
Holder during his speech said that “Over $2 billion or more than 50% of your severance pay will be paid commencing next Monday, the remainder to be paid during the second half of the year. Indeed those whose severance is $500,000 or less will be paid in full.”
He also encouraged the workers to pursue an “agriculture option.” He said, “It is the intention of the government to get on with the business of the people,” while telling the former workers that it was necessary to take three estates out of operation.
He added, “Our efforts are focused on transitioning of ex-employees into entrepreneurs, including farmers.”
Further, the idea of leasing lands and capacity building programmes are things the government is embarking on.
At both meetings, workers told Stabroek News that they wanted to hear “good news,” that is, that everyone would be receiving their severance packages. Others said that they were hoping the Prime Minister was coming to inform of viable job creation ideas. They lamented that Nagamootoo only announced a partial severance payment.
This did not sit well with the visibly annoyed workers as they started to shout, “We want our money now…Everybody want them money now,”
One worker, called Glen, from Canje, while almost breaking into tears, said he believes that the government officials “do not have compassion” for the jobless workers.
Zamal Hussain, PPP/C Regional Supervisor, said yesterday’s protests were held to continue to sound their “disapproval” at several of the government’s decisions.
According to Hussain, the last time Prime Minister Nagamootoo was in Canje he told a gathering that sugar was too big to fail. However, Hussain said the government has failed hundreds of sugar workers.
He said the fact that the government thought it necessary to go to Berbice to announce that severance payments would begin on Tuesday was an “insult” to the former sugar workers.
“Big meetings from people from Georgetown just to tell the people that they would have their severance on Tuesday, nothing else ….We are here to picket that they can have some amount of relief. Severance is just for a time. We are asking for subsidies for them on water and light and also transportation for their children to schools,” he stressed.
Hussain also called on the government to focus on job creation in the various regions where estates would have closed.