Trade union leaders yesterday called on Guyanese workers to “fight” to preserve hard-won rights and privileges, which they said are being eroded after being enshrined in law a generation ago.
“Workers face a clear and present threat of losing what is constitutionally-protected and guaranteed,” General Secretary of the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) Lincoln Lewis told those gathered at yesterday’s May Day Rally at the National Park.
Even as a section of the crowd loudly labelled the veteran trade unionist a traitor, Lewis stressed that workers in the public sector as well as the bauxite and sugar sectors “are battling to have [employers] respect the gains inherited from our predecessors.”
“For over 15 years, members of the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) have been deprived collective bargaining, nine for workers in the Bauxite Company of Guyana Incorporated, [while] the teachers’ union is still to sign an agreement that flows from collective bargaining [and] the sugar unions are expressing concerns [about] being sidelined in the decision-making of GuySuCo,” Lewis reminded.
He lamented that though politicians offered respect for collective bargaining as a campaign promise, they have been less than honourable when it comes time to fulfill this promise and instead they seem to now advocate that “to enjoy what is constitutionally-guaranteed requires going on our knees.”
In the face of this action, Lewis implored the lacklustre crowd to fight. Like every other speaker, he invoked the spirit of famed Guyanese trade unionist Hubert Nathanial Critchlow and called on workers to “fight” like him, Jane-Phillips Gay, Cheddi Jagan, Forbes Burnham, Joseph Pollydore and others did in their time.
“They did their work, we must do ours,” Lewis said before once again lamenting the absence of a Labour Ministry in the APNU+AFC administration.
“The absence of a Ministry of Labour not only signals the value government places on a country’s most valued resource but also communicates to allies and foes of Guyana that Guyanese are not considered pivotal to the country’s development, and such perception is reinforced with the country’s non-attendance to [the] International Labour Organisation Conference for the past three years,” he added.
Lewis called on Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection Keith Scott, who has responsibility for labour, to have the current administration change the nation’s politics for the better, while imploring opposition parliamentarian Gillian Burton-Persaud to “bring a motion in the House seeking the re-establishment of the Ministry of Labour.”
“Labour is prepared to work with you to bring this to fruition and hopes you take this commitment in the spirit of solidarity,” he added.
Attorney General Basil Williams, who was also present, was hailed as a past friend to the labour movement and was encouraged “to use this experience in impressing on his administration the wisdom of having a Ministry of Labour and the benefit of treating Labour as a social partner consistent with Articles 38 and 149C of the Guyana Constitution.”
By the time Lewis rose to speak, Scott and Minister of Social Protection Amna Ally had walked out in protest at not being placed to speak on the programme. The walkout, however, lacked impact as no one appeared to have noticed.
First Vice-President of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana (FITUG), Komal Chand, meanwhile, encouraged workers to “be more assertive” in demanding rights and insisting that they be involved in the decision-making processes that impact their lives.
He drew attention to the sugar workers, whom he represents, noting that the plight of thousands of workers in the sugar industry cannot be disregarded.
Referring to the current situation as “yet another sad chapter in our country’s history,” Chand said that in recent months some 7,000 sugar workers had been sent home without any plan to address their welfare, while some workers received only half of their severance payments and some others at Wales received none.
“For us, this is one of the most callous of decisions ever made in living memory. Today, many of the workers who have been placed on the breadline remain right there, unable to find steady jobs and in some cases any job at all. The promises of saving sugar heard boisterously by persons now in government have proven to be hollow and empty,” he lamented, while noting that at this time there is apparent confusion surrounding the sugar industry.
Chand therefore called once again for a workable industry plan involving the workers and their organisations, which he said would strengthen any and all efforts to attain the desired ends and goals.
‘A sore issue’
Both Lewis and Chand also bemoaned recent employment statistics during their addresses.
“Employment remains a sore issue. Too many are unemployed, under-employed and the retired who need to be productively engaged are being deprived,” Lewis said, while referencing the recently released Guyana Labour Force Survey.
He added that any effort to bring about the management of the people’s business in a scientific manner should be applauded but action must also be taken.
“This nation needs a policy and programme for the creation of decent jobs. Meaning must be given to data being collected beyond collection and making findings public,” he stressed.
Lewis’ position on unemployment was supported by Chand. According to Chand, unemployment is “a vexing issue.”
“The Labour Force Survey, just recently made public, identified that less than half of our working-age population is employed. It says also that youth unemployment is unacceptably high. It says, alarmingly, that 53% of our people are either impoverished or are vulnerable to impoverishment,” he told those gathered.
The survey calculated that the unemployment rate stood at 12% in the third quarter of last year. It also found that among the total resident population aged 15 and above, numbering 550,831 persons, there was a labour force participation rate of 56%, roughly equal to the corresponding 2012 figure of 55.7%. The total employed population was given as 271,068.
“These findings cannot be comforting to us recognising the deteriorating conditions we now face. An expression of our slide downwards is manifested in the rising criminality, which has left many Guyanese living in fear. Once again, we call on the appropriate authorities to allay people’s fears and develop strategies to effectively contain this malady in our midst,” Chand said.