President of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union (GAWU) Komal Chand says that he has no fear that the government or Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) will not pay the interest on the remaining severance payments to laid off sugar workers, as was ordered by the High Court, despite it not being catered for in the supplementary funding that was approved by Parliament last week.
On Friday, days after the National Assembly approved over $2 billion in supplementary funds for the payment of the remaining severance to over 2,000 laid off sugar workers, Justice Fidela Corbin-Lincoln ordered that they be paid in full and with interest no later than January 15th, 2019.
She ordered that the remaining 50% of severance be paid to the 2,198 workers along with interest at a rate of 6% from the day of severance – December 29th, 2017 – to November 3rd, 2018, and thereafter at a rate of 4% until fully paid.
Speaking to Stabroek News yesterday, Chand said he was told by Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder that the sum that was approved by the National Assembly did not include the interest payments that was ordered by the court.
However, he related that he does not believe that the government and the sugar corporation will have any issues with abiding by the rule of law. “…I suppose in this case somebody has to pay it… Maybe GuySuCo has to find that money because it is now a court order and if they defy it they will be in contempt of the court. Somebody has to pay it, whether it’s the government or GuySuCo, it will be paid. It’s an order and the rule of law and we are still abiding by the rule of law, so we don’t see them not honouring the payment,” Chand said.
Chand also called the ruling as well as government’s move to pay the remaining severance a victory for the union but added that it should not be interpreted as the government doing something out of “goodwill” since it was unlawful in the first place to withhold the workers’ full severance payments.
“It is a victory for the union because it is under the union’s leadership that we took the matter to all dimensions. We incurred high costs and so on because we had picketing actions and we had to service the picketing and assist the workers with transportation. We feel satisfied and that it was an unnecessary frustration to the workers because in the first place severance pay ought to be paid within the time it ought to be paid and that is by one month of the expiration of the notice given to them but you had to be constantly engaging them because we were dealing with an unconscionable anti-working class government,” Chand added.
He further explained that the victory should be credited to the efforts on the ground by the workers during industrial actions as well as the drive of the union.
“We had been agitating on the ground and I would put a lot of credit to the agitation and the protests by the workers because it tells you that the court has been waiting to see what will be the decision of the Government in Parliament,” he added, while noting that the government might have also been embarrassed given the fact that it was campaigning for the local government elections but had not paid thousands of workers their remaining monies.
“…Facing the electorate at the local government level must have influenced the move and the fact that we did what we did. We took the matter to court and we were all-dimensional with how we were dealing with the issue,” he said.
In total, 4,283 workers were laid off from the Skeldon, Rose Hall and East Demerara sugar estates.
By law, the severance payment ought to have been made at the time of termination of employment and the failure of both GuySuCo and the government to comply with the provision has attracted sharp criticism.
The House had previously approved $1.931 billion for severance payments, which along with $500 million that had been allocated in the 2018 national budget facilitated a total payout of $2.431 billion in January.
At that time, Minister of Finance Winston Jordan had said that this sum would facilitate full severance by the end of January for a little more than 1,600 of the 4,763 sugar workers that had been made redundant by GuySuCo as part of its restructuring programme.
This represented those sent home by GuySuCo, who were entitled to severance payouts of $500,000 or less. The other workers received 50% of their severance, with a promise that the remaining sums would be paid in the second half of the year.