Aside from the injustice of payment in two stages, the controversy surrounding severance for thousands of sugar workers has crystallised yet again the incoherence in the APNU+AFC government on pivotal issues and the lack of decisive leadership.
With little notice to either workers, their communities or the country and even apparently the government, GuySuCo announced in November/ December last year redundancies totalling around 4,000. After having been given false hopes by the government that alternative employment would be made available to them and possibly land, the bad faith shown to the sugar workers was compounded by the administration’s inability to meet severance obligations to the workers in accordance with the law.
GuySuCo has long ceased being financially viable and capable of paying off its liabilities. The government has been acutely aware of this since the middle of 2015 when it became known that under the PPP/C the industry was left needing $16b to keep going. Moreover, the Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder has been kept apprised by GuySuCo of imminent changes in its operations and on matters like layoffs and has accepted that these are necessary. So when the severance letters from GuySuCo began going out in November and December, the government should have been able to programme the full payment of benefits into the 2018 budget which was in the throes of construction.
It is therefore pathetic to hear Minister Harmon claim as he did on Friday that only $500m in severance was provided for in the 2018 budget as the government was unaware of the total number of workers to be laid off. Is Minister Harmon suggesting that Minister Holder had not properly advised Cabinet of the total number of persons to be made redundant? The public should be told exactly who failed to make the appropriate projection when as early as the middle of October, 2017 GuySuCo had announced that 2,500 workers were being made redundant by December.
Either way, disrespect is being shown by the government towards sugar workers and this will be seen across the country as politically tinged. The government also comes across as inept and incapable of planning for and prioritising actions on complex matters such as the restructuring of the sugar sector. This does not bode well for the coalition’s major plans such as the diversification of the economy, the expected unfurling of a real plan for green energy and managing the period leading up to oil production.
There is no doubt that when it took office in May 2015 that the APNU+AFC government was handed the poisoned chalice that was the PPP/C’s sugar industry for 23 years. Nevertheless, by virtue of its considerable tenure on the opposition benches, APNU and the AFC must surely have known how dire the situation was. The industry was heavily indebted, production had begun falling progressively since 2005, the EU market had become undone as a result of reforms in the European Community which were mercilessly imposed on ACP countries, sugar workers were not turning up and the Skeldon sugar estate was a veritable albatross on the industry with no prospect for recovery.
Yet, despite having the expertise as Chairman of GuySuCo, renowned economist Dr Clive Thomas, who has written extensively on the dire prospects for sugar in this newspaper, the government meandered and deferred taking transformational steps. It convened a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) which provided little guidance on the way forward and then proceeded to announce the closure of the Wales sugar cultivation in January 2016 contrary to one of the key positions of the CoI.
For two years, the government and GuySuCo issued a series of pledges to the workers of the Wales estate in relation to alternative employment and other options. These have all failed to deliver except for dozens of workers who now have to make an arduous journey to the Uitvlugt estate each day. As had been warned by sceptics, nothing has flowed from the proposed diversification plans. The cultivation of seed paddy at Wales was not a success and the much-hyped aquaculture project has apparently sailed away along with a host of other infeasible plans. It was a return to the sugar diversification plans of the 80s and these plans have predictably met the same ignominious fate and with some of the same advisors on board.
A small number of the sugar workers made redundant have been provided with training under the Alternative Livelihoods Programme and others will be helped by the Small Business Bureau. While commendable, these initiatives don’t amount to much at this point particularly considering the amount of time that the government has had to prepare.
While it is GuySuCo that has severed the employment of the sugar workers with more likely to follow, it is the government which is managing the sector and which must now take the responsibility. It is unacceptable to cut 4,000 workers loose and put their entire families and communities at risk without having some viable options at hand. That amounts to a gross abdication of governance responsibility towards an industry that has provided sustenance to these parts for hundreds of years.
The situation has been worsened by the callous incapacity to pay the severance as is required. When one considers the $5b severance requirement, the expenditure of more than one-fifth of that on the highly questionable D’Urban Park project stands out starkly.
The government must take steps to meet as soon as possible the entire severance payment allocation to workers. This will give workers the opportunity of determining for themselves what their benefit may permit them to do in terms of investing or finding new livelihoods.
Second, joint teams representing GuySuCo, the ministries of Agriculture, Social Protection and Public Health should be visiting the hard-hit communities to determine ways in which the state could help particularly considering the manner in which Wales was abandoned after cultivation ended there on December 31, 2016. It would also be entirely appropriate for one or two ministers to make the occasional visit to sugar belt communities.