Outlining a six-point plan for thousands of laid off sugar workers, including land for them to earn a livelihood, commentator Christopher Ram yesterday waded into the unions that represent them, government, GuySuCo and the former PPP/C administration for the state of the industry.
“GuySuCo and sugar are not just a company, it is part of the economy, part of our culture, part of the fabric of our society…this is a sector that has carried this country since little after its discovery,” Ram told attendees at the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana’s (FITUG) 6th Delegates Conference, which was held at the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union head office in High Street, Kingston, Georgetown,
He said that from estimations, when “the so-called reorganisation of the State-owned Guyana Sugar Corporation is completed” approximately ten thousand persons, whose only job-skills were learnt during sometimes decades of work, the nature of which has changed little since slavery, will have been put on the breadline to eke out a living along with approximately forty to fifty thousand dependents.
“I have found it difficult to find another parallel and in terms of sheer numbers, this must be the single largest layoff in the history of Guyana. But what did I find. Neither the Government nor the Corporation has put in place mechanisms to cushion the financial, social, economic and personal impact and consequences on lives and livelihoods of these people,” he stressed.
“Whatever your ideology or philosophy, whatever you think of the ethnicity to which the workers belong or the political parties they support, whatever you think of the management of the Corporation, for long periods appointed and controlled by the PNC (1976 – 1992) followed by the PPP (1992 – 2015) and more recently by the APNU+AFC (2015 – 2018), whatever you think about the lifecycle of the industry, the Government’s handling of the crisis for which they alone are not responsible, not only leaves much to be desired, but seems callous, remorseless, insensitive, cruel and shortsighted,” he added.
In an impassioned address and to thunderous applause by attendees periodically during the delivery, Ram pointed out that it is common in every society that agricultural activities form a major segment of the rural divide, preventing urban drift and allowing for a less unbalanced economy.
He said that in Guyana, that has been most pronounced, particularly with sugar. “The danger of taking the approach which this Government has done, is to drain the lifeblood of entire communities leading inexorably to withering and death. For the political elite… this is just another policy action with no concern for people, and which fails to understand the broader implications of such action,” he said.
Reminding the APNU+AFC Government that when it first came to power, it appointed a Commission of Inquiry headed by a former Minister of the PNC Government , Vibert Parvatan and Dr. Clive Thomas which offered a report of recommendations, Ram said that those have seemingly been ignored.
The White Paper presented to the National Assembly by the Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder for the restructuring of GuySuCo was also adverted to with Ram saying that initiative was abandoned and a vesting Order was made carving out substantial sugar industry assets to NICIL. “Those assets were transferred to NICIL at no cost, arguably in violation of both legal and accounting principles and then the Government, with a straight face, tells the workers that there is no money to pay the barest minimum to which the law entitles them under the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act,” he posited.
The People’s Progressive Party was not spared as Ram noted that he has also consistently criticized the mismanagement of the Corporation under the PPP/C government.
Reflecting on a column he had written during the PPP/C’s tenure, under the caption that `GuySuCo was too big to succeed’, he said that he warned then that measures were clearly necessary to address the haemorrhaging which had been taking place in the Corporation for several years.
From a financial and social vantage point, he offered recommendations to government, although he said that he was not confident of any responsiveness.
“The first step is that the workers must be paid their statutory entitlement to severance pay promptly and fully. Second, the workers must be encouraged and assisted in the difficult task of retraining and re-education. We are too small a society to throw a significant segment of the population to survive as best as they could. As a society, we have a responsibility to assist the most vulnerable in our midst. In the case of the Government, that is a duty,” he urged.
“Third, workers must be given lands to carry out their trade and earn their livelihood in the activity in which they are most proficient. The value to the Government of some privatisation proceeds in the short term is simply not worth the long term effects of deprivation of some safety net to the workers. Fourth, businesses must be encouraged and given incentives to employ terminated GuySuCo employees. Fifth, new economic activities, and businesses, established in the areas affected by the closures, which create new employment should be granted the incentives available under section 2 of the Income Tax. Sixth, direct and indirect contributions to the welfare of terminated GuySuCo employees including scholarships to the children of those workers, should be made tax deductible, at least for businesses,” he added.
He said it will be interesting to see if government will open discussions on the way forward and if “the unions representing these workers and which have become financially strong on the dues from those workers, have the will and the energy to defend and advance the case for the workers.”