A coordinating committee after 5,000 jobs lost?

In the aftermath of the loss of nearly 5,000 jobs in the industry, Friday’s announcement by the Guyana Sugar Corporation that it has created a coordinating committee for its ‘Sustainable and Resilient Communities Programme’ and ‘Alternative Livelihoods Initiative’ can only be seen as another sign of the gross failure of the APNU+AFC administration to come to grips with its responsibilities.

There is no gainsaying that the PPP/C government dithered for years and brought the heavily indebted sugar industry to its knees and endangered  the jobs and livelihoods of thousands. That, however, was more than three years ago. Today, the APNU+AFC government’s policy on the thousands who have been made redundant is one of default and avoidance. It is hoping that the problem will simply go away and that the sugar union GAWU and the PPP will not be able to create disruptions over it.

While the government sits back and presumably waits for oil to begin flowing, communities at Wales, Rose Hall, Skeldon and Enmore have seen their fortunes decline and hundreds of families put under the stress. If after three years all the government can do is talk about a plantain chip economy and establish useless committees then it has failed comprehensively at what was its biggest challenge since entering office and this is an ominous sign for its general administration of the country.

When it entered office, the APNU+AFC government wasted much time by holding a commission of inquiry into the sugar industry when its resident experts like the Chairman of GuySuCo, Professor Thomas knew full well what dire problems the industry faced. The government allowed months to be frittered away on a report whose recommendations it then completely disregarded, a key one being that no sugar estate should be closed.

It then proceeded to announce the closure of the Wales estate in January 2016 without the slightest clue as to what opportunities could be offered to those made redundant. It duped laid-off Wales workers into thinking that after the closure of the estate at the end of 2016 there would be livelihoods available in a host of agricultural projects including aqua-culture. These same ideas in the 1980s had failed ignominiously and left the then  PNC government and GuySuCo in grave embarrassment.  Yet this government was prepared to embark on this folly again by rehabilitating some of the same discredited personages from that era – jobs for the PNCR boys. The outcome has been a complete failure and all of these talked about projects including seed padi cultivation at Wales have been abandoned. The end result is that despite the promises that had been made to sugar workers of alternative livelihoods there is nothing to show.  The expectation of workers that land from the estates might be made available to them has disappeared into thin air although the Special Purpose Unit set up by the government to look at privatisation of the four estates took it upon itself to advertise prime lands at Wales Estate for sale. Shouldn’t such a decision have awaited a determination on whether some lands should be made available to workers and whether Wales might need to privatised with these lands intact? Who authorised the advertising of the sale of the lands?

In this depressed economy, with few investments coming in and substantial job losses in other sectors – timber and fisheries for example – the government faces an uphill task in providing succour to the communities with hundreds of laid-off workers. It is however its responsibility and it must do so in some sort of structured manner. While there has been talk, there is no evidence that the government and its relevant ministries: social protection and communities together with GuySuCo – still without a functioning board – have been working to map the plight of affected families to provide aid in a comprehensive manner. 

There is no evidence that these families are being tracked to determine whether those made redundant are finding jobs and are accessing available benefits from social services. Following two suicides suspected to be linked to the redundancies there has been expanded mental health services but it is unclear how many families are being reached. 

There is no comprehensive programme in conjunction with the sugar unions to retrain the laid-off workers for openings in construction and other sectors. Some of those laid off turned to fishing only to encounter another setback as a result of the piracy attack off of Suriname in April.  On Friday, the Ministry of Natural Resources unveiled a programme to train some sugar workers among 100 persons – a programme worth a paltry $4.5m. Minister Raphael Trotman also adverted to what appears to be the underpinning of all government policy – oil.  He said “We know that many of you are afraid, many of you are worried. We are here as a government … to help you. In a few short months, oil is going to be produced in this country. This county as the sun rises in the east is not going to be left behind. Guyana will rise from Berbice”.

He is right that people are worried but completely misguided in trying to convince them that oil will be their saviour when the government is still to produce a Department of Energy, local content policy and sovereign wealth fund legislation.

Leaving these communities to fester with their discontent and deprivations will undoubtedly trigger further social deformities and increased crime. The government has to really step forward as this task is beyond GuySuCo.

Friday’s GuySuCo press release reported Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan as saying that his ministry is very keen on supporting the resilient communities programme since it is an extremely important “preventative initiative”. He further noted that “the more economically and socially resilient communities are the more the impact on crime reduction will be positive, as well as other social and economic issues associated with crime”.

Having recognised this, the minister should ensure that his party and the government that he is part of discharge their responsibilities towards these workers who have been largely left on their own. Will the government be making any investment in these workers such as land allocations or education grants?

Rather absurdly, Minister Ramjattan was named in the GuySuCo press release as the patron of this committee. These workers need tangible help and a functioning government not patronising.

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