Sugar workers need a plan from the PPP/C to be placed before the nation

Dear Editor,

Bharrat Jagdeo is playing Russian Roulette with the welfare of sugar workers, which is dangerous. The future of sugar workers is now, and they need a plan from the PPP/C to be placed before this nation which will show that the party really cares about them and is not using their plight only as a means to retake government in 2020. Note is taken of Mr Jagdeo’s press conference where he sought to give the impression his government took a compassionate approach in treating with bauxite workers when it moved to divest the industry, and a benefit he offered these workers was subsidised electricity.

Let me remind the society what happened during the divestment of the bauxite companies. The Jagdeo government refused to engage the bauxite unions, political opposition, and other legitimate stakeholders on the way forward. He visited Kwakwani, Linden and Everton and called on bauxite workers to shun their unions and form themselves into workers committees and he would engage them through this medium. The result of his actions not only saw the breaking up of the workers’ pension plan worth in excess of $2.5 billion, but workers and their communities are still reeling from decisions that did not have the involvement of their representatives, were not properly thought out, and not without political bias aimed at destroying their unions and communities.

The claimed issue of the subsidised electricity in Linden and Kwakwani which Jagdeo touts as a best practice of his administration and should be emulated by this government in treating with sugar workers is deceptive. Electricity, water and community activities in Linden were always subsidised and considered deferred/unseen wages. These benefits were negotiated at the bargaining table by the trade union and the management dating back to Reynolds and Demba, and continued during nationalisation.

Those who didn’t work with the companies and received these benefits were considered as part of corporate responsibility to the communities. Tampering with these benefits without the input of stakeholders risked upheaval as experienced in 2012 when the Donald Ramotar government sought to increase Linden’s electricity tariff. In the case of Kwakwani workers and residents never paid for electricity and water because these were part of deferred wages. They began paying for these under the Jagdeo presidency.

In principle there is no problem if the David Granger/ Moses Nagamootoo government sees the need to extend the benefits bauxite workers fought for and achieved to sugar workers as President Desmond Hoyte did when bauxite workers fought for and achieved tax free overtime and premium hours worked. The nation is being reminded the Jagdeo government took away the tax free benefit from bauxite workers even as he kept it in sugar.

Let me reiterate my dissatisfaction with the manner in which the future of the sugar industry is being handled. At the same time the PPP/C Leader cannot escape being held accountable for creating the situation of uncertainty and anxiety in the industry and among sugar workers. He established the precedent, and whenever he speaks of the treatment these workers are receiving people do not see credibility and sincerity, they seek trickery and political opportunism. When sugar estates were closed during his tenure and the workers laid off there was no stipend paid to them, there was no retraining/re-education opportunities offered, neither was their severance pay honoured consistent with the Collective Labour Agreement. In fact, these workers had to go to court before his government saw it fit to authorise GuySuCo to release this benefit.

Historically the Government of Guyana sought to treat the productive sector (ie sugar and bauxite) equally. This made not only management sense, but also political sense given the dynamics of the industries and the perceived support of the workers. A Jagdeo government that applied henchman tactics to the bauxite workers and their communities and in the closure of sugar estates and towards sugar workers never thought the tables would have turned. This is the same man who gave the instruction to GuySuCo to de-recognise the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU). Had he established a positive precedent he would have had the moral authority today to speak from and stand on.

That being said, it does not prevent the PPP/C from putting forward a plan to address the dire conditions in the industry. Just as DDL has indicated its interest in buying some aspect of Enmore Estate, which can guarantee some employment, the PPP/C can come up with similar plans. The willy nilly talks at press conferences will not suffice. Sugar workers are facing an uncertain future and they need solutions to their problems now, not being told that better days are going to come, intimating that this would only be possible should the PPP/C win government. Going by the past sugar workers cannot trust this.

There is a White Paper that was approved in the National Assembly during the Cheddi Jagan presidency that stipulates where state entities are being privatised the minimum of 10 per cent of the shares should be set aside for the workers. When bauxite workers wanted to buy Bermine, the Jadgeo government moved to ensure the purchase was not realised by putting pressure on the partner not to associate with the deal, causing the effort to fold.

Given the way the PPP/C treated with bauxite workers and their communities, the public service, state entities, and the African community which represents a significant portion of the society, there are mixed views today with what is happening in sugar.  The tone was set for creating divisions and it requires much to weld the society together. What the PPP/C should be doing if it is serious about the industry’s future, is just as Jagdeo met with stakeholders across the spectrum to discuss and arrive at nominees for the Chairman of Gecom, a similar approach could be adopted in addressing sugar. Thereafter he can request a meeting with President Granger, whose government has executive responsibility, to constructively engage in arriving at a viable plan.

Citizens/workers have to start holding their leaders accountable to deliver solutions in their interest, be they in politics, trade unions or otherwise, and not be fooled.

Yours faithfully,

Lincoln Lewis

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