Friday’s meeting on the future of the sugar industry between the government and the two unions, GAWU and NAACIE is a heartening development and must lead to substantive options for the thousands of dislocated workers and a viable plan for the remaining estates.
Based on the statement issued after the meeting, it was clear that both sides recognised the exigency of the situation and that they needed to work together to maximise opportunities and limit the fallout. Why wasn’t such a meeting held earlier and certainly at the point at which it was known to both government and GuySuCo that these redundancies would be coming? From a statement delivered by GAWU on Saturday it was revealed that the meeting was convened following a January 4th, 2018 request that the union made to Minister of State Joseph Harmon. In its statement on Saturday, the union also noted the commitment made by President David Granger in his message to the National Assembly on January 10, 2018 to engage the unions among others.
While a series of such meetings should have been held earlier, the crisis in the industry has now mushroomed beyond the space of the upper level stakeholders. It has now completely enveloped dozens of communities in the Corentyne sugar belt, the East Coast of Demerara and the West Bank of Demerara. Those communities are now dealing with the loss of a large percentage of their purchasing power. Some of those communities may not be able to navigate the loss of this income. Corner shops, groceries, snackettes and other such establishments face grave risk. A number of families would have lost the income of their only breadwinner and with few options for its replacement. Families are faced with the challenge of providing sustenance at their dinner tables and continuing to keep their children in school. Utility bills will become an even bigger burden. Difficult decisions will now have to be made by families about relocating to other parts of the country or completely reorienting their lives by entering other livelihoods such as fishing and cash crop farming.
So whereas Friday’s meeting was perfectly welcome its real utility has been overtaken by the body blows that Wales, Enmore and the dozens of communities in and around Skeldon and Rose Hall will now feel on a daily basis.
In Parliament on Friday, Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder gave the updated numbers of those made redundant at the various estates. The numbers are stark and one can only imagine the actual impact on the ground. The redundancies at Wales which was the first to be shuttered at the end of 2016 were put at 251 though the union and the community have disputed this figure and said that it is higher. Minister Holder would only say that the matter was sub judice.
A total of 4,763 sugar workers have been severed by GuySuCo thus far. Of that number, 1,851 are from the Skeldon Estate, 1,181 from Rose Hall, 1,480 from the East Demerara Estate and 251 from Wales. Those are big numbers and many streets in these communities would be trying to come to grips with the shock of the December severance letters.
The point is that the future engagements between the government and the unions must be expanded to include the regional councils for the affected areas, the municipalities and the neighbourhood democratic councils. After all, the whole purpose behind the convening of historic local government elections in 2016 was to give these local government bodies a vital say and stake in the running of their communities. Facing serious dislocation by virtue of the mass sugar layoffs they have not been invited to the table.
While the Minister of Social Protection, Amna Ally voiced her concern at the Friday meeting about the plight facing sugar workers, her ministry and the Ministry of Communities should be on the ground to gauge the immediate and medium-term impact of the redundancies and to employ this information in devising solutions. They should be determining which communities have seen the highest numbers of redundancies and gather the views of the residents on their needs. Might there be immediate need for food assistance or for small loans?
Whenever the next meeting is held, one expects that at the top of the agenda will be an end to the redundancies and the developing of plans to find new livelihoods for those without jobs and opportunities for retraining into occupations which are in demand.
The stakeholders should also be considering the level of investment needed in field husbandry to improve yields at the remaining estates so that the cost of production can begin to fall and gravitate closer to world market prices. This is vital if these estates are to continue in business as further bailouts are unlikely to be forthcoming from the state. How to lock in as much of the Caribbean market for sugar must also be uppermost in the consideration of the stakeholders and this should lead to a concrete proposal at the level of the CARICOM Heads.
The government has been shockingly inconsistent on why the full severance pay to the 4,763 sugar workers has not been met. Minister Harmon said that the government had been unaware of the total number to be made redundant while Minister Trotman cited spending priorities. In their statement on Saturday, GAWU referenced another reason which it said was delivered by Finance Minister Jordan at Friday’s meeting, to wit that there could be inflationary pressures if the full severance payment was made. Not only is this statement at odds with the other excuses offered by the government but its macroeconomic considerations have no place in governance with a human face. Inflationary pressures or not, the law requires that the full severance be paid on termination of service.