The perception that workers in the sugar industry cannot be retrained needs to change, GuySuCo’s Corporate Human Resources Manager Audreyanna Thomas declared last evening, in response to concerns that the government is offering short-term solutions to long-term problems.
Thomas appeared on a panel at the Moray House last evening to discuss the “economic revival” of Region Six. The panel also included accountant Christopher Ram, acting Chief Executive Officer of the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority (NDIA) Dave Hicks, and President of the Berbice Chamber of Commerce, Ryan Alexander.
Also present at the event was Junior Minister of Finance, Jaipaul Sharma, along with members of the private sector, other government institutions, and civil society.
During her presentation, Thomas highlighted the steps GuySuCo has taken to date to mitigate the effects of the retrenchment of over 4,000 sugar workers, including its Sustainable Communities Development programme, which involves offering skills training to laid-off workers to push the development of an alternative means of livelihood.
The areas that workers are being trained in include sewing, catering, masonry, carpentry and plumbing.
But this avenue was criticised by several in attendance at last night’s forum, with trade Unionist Lincoln Lewis concluding that “we are not learning” and that the government’s strategy needs to be rethought, and others echoing his sentiment.
“I’ve had 20 years’ service in the cane industry and it’s not easy to make that transition from cane harvesting or working in the sugar estate as a pump attendant to go into plumbing or carpentry or masonry. We tried it at Matthews Ridge and it failed. Forbes Burnham tried to convert miners into agriculturalists and it failed….we have to sit with people. Not very many people have sat with the cane harvesters or the people who have been displaced. We’ve confined our discussions to boardrooms and the media. And I feel we have to get out there, do some bottom house meetings, talk to people,” Retired Major-General Joe Singh, who moderated yesterday’s programme, said to applause.
Mohammed Raffik, President of the Central Corentyne Chamber of Commerce, told the gathering that the strength of Region Six is agriculture. “…The solution is not training one or two persons to be a carpenter or a mason or whatever it is—that’s by the way. The solution is in agriculture; that’s where the solution is,” he said. “I must commend Moray House for this session here this afternoon because—You know what? I have never gone to anywhere, been invited by the government or any ministry to discuss this matter. And what we are doing now should have been done about 12 months before the government made the callous decision to close the estates,” he added, while relating that a year ago, the body had met with government and had advised it not to close the estates until a plan was developed.
Attorney Charles Ramson Jr, weighing in on the discussion, opined that there are “scores of 45-year-old men for whom there is no possibility of retooling.”
Using Detroit, Michigan in the United States as a reference, he stated, “you go on the internet right now, you’ll see what the depressed communities of Detroit look like. And what the word depressed comes from is not the fact that the buildings are falling apart, it’s the psychological infliction that comes about as a result of not having an economic opportunity. And Berbice already has that propensity where they are afflicted with a… higher suicide rate.”
“We must recognise that GuySuCo is a behemoth. Is it a massive, massive, investment creature, which means the solution also has to be massive,” he further stated, before adding that we have not yet been witness to the displacement that will come about as a result of the retrenchment, which will possibly lead to increased migration rates to the city when economic opportunities cannot be accessed.
“…So the solution could never ever be closing the estate, end of story… the solution had to have been what is the future for you? Most of what we have heard here this afternoon and this evening are things that the government would have already heard before. But, most importantly, the question is, are they listening?” he questioned.
Though clear opposition was shown toward the alternative livelihoods programme underway, Thomas related that GuySuCo had in fact held consultations with sugar workers before deciding on what areas skills training would be offered. “I’m sitting in this room and I’m hearing us in this room saying that the people in the sugar industry… are not capable of being retrained, when the [workers] have indicated to us that we would like to at least try these areas… I just find that a little disappointing. I’m wondering if that’s a perception that you have of the people in the sugar industry,” Thomas told the audience, while noting that the workers themselves had indicated their areas of personal interest.
“There’s a country where what they did, they retrained the elderly women in the community as solar engineers because the young people were leaving and the older women weren’t going anywhere. And so these older women were managing the electricity in the community…So while I hear you…I’d like to say, let’s change that perception. At least somewhat. That the workers in the sugar industry cannot be retrained,” she further stated.
Even as those present discussed the future of Region Six in the midst of the retrenchment of sugar workers, there was the acknowledgment that the discourse should in fact be taking place in the region of interest, and the irony that Region Six was actually least represented in the room.
But Singh has already called for the discussion to be taken to the region, stating that if the situation is being painted as a crisis, then an emergency response must be taken. Alexander has taken up the challenge to ensure that the discussion is moved to Berbice.
Singh also pointed out the need for a political consensus on the issue, while noting that it is often difficult to get organisations to come together for discourse, even on a common cause.
“…We seem to have a phobia of having everyone in the same room. It’s either we’re protecting our turf, or are afraid to be embarrassed. People do not sit in the same room, so you speak to agriculture today, then you have to go and speak to NDIA. You speak to tourism today, then you have to go and speak to somebody else tomorrow… you will continue to make these recommendations ad infinitum. I’m saying it has to stop,” Singh stated.
He advised that the immediate response should be getting money into the pockets of those displaced by the loss of jobs, and coming up for a projection for the year 2020 and beyond.