AFC’s statements on severance say a lot about the sincerity of their concern for sugar workers

Dear Editor,

Our union has noted reports appearing in several sections of the media concerning the press conference by the Alliance for Change (AFC) held on January 15, 2018, and more so the comments made by leaders of that party with regard to the severance payments to the some 4,000 sugar workers of Skeldon, Rose Hall and East Demerara Estates. The GAWU found the statements attributed to leaders of that party which has boasted about its links with the sugar workers as incredible, to say the least, and they say a lot about the sincerity of the AFC’s concern about the plight of the sugar workers.

Minister of Agriculture Noel Holder, is quoted in the January 16, 2018 Guyana Times, as saying “[f]inding the $4.5 billion in severance is a difficult thing to do” but, seemingly, it was not difficult for the Minister and his colleagues to send home 4,000 workers which has directly impacted the well-being of approximately 20,000 Guyanese men, women and children. From the Minister’s perspective, using 1.8 per cent of the 2018 Budget in the interest of a large group of our citizens is a difficult thing to do. This is adding insult to injury.

The Agriculture Minister didn’t stop there and according to the Times also is reported to have said “paying the entire severance amount was impossible” which seems to indicate that the administration hadn’t any intention to fully settle its indebtedness to the workers. We cannot help but wonder what the government had intended to do to the already beleaguered, now jobless, workers. Moreover, Minister Holder’s recent statements are also in complete contrast to what he said in the December 22, 2017 Guyana Chronicle. At that time, the Minister was quoted to have said “…the Ministry has an allocation for GuySuCo of $6.3B but other funds are supposed to be available through other avenues involving subsidies from the Ministry of Finance”. Was the Minister being less than honest when he spoke to the Chronicle back in December, 2017?

Then Minister Holder’s colleague, Minister of Natural Resources and AFC Leader Raphael Trotman, in the January 16, 2018 Stabroek News, is quoted as saying, “[W]e knew we had to pay severance, we just weren’t sure where it would come from”. The statement by the AFC leader leaves us in disbelief and causes us to wonder if this how the affairs of the state and the business of the people are managed. Clearly, the administration needs to do a better job at dotting its I’s and crossing its T’s. Also, Minister Trotman, in the Stabroek News report, in an effort to justify the unjustifiable said that government “…had to divert billions to readying both Lusignan and Camp Street [prisons]”. We recall on the evening of the catastrophic July, 2017 Camp Street Prison fire, Vice President and Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan, in seeking to explain away the incident, pointed to sums the administration directed to the sugar industry as a rationale for the prison blaze. Now the tables have turned and the prison is the cause for the workers being denied their legal entitlement.

Then Minister Trotman, in a report appearing on the NewsRoom newscast of January 16, 2018, also said “Guyana Sugar Corporation … should be paying the severance but the Government has taken up the responsibility to make the payments”. But the Minister while wanting to have the administration appearing to be benevolent seems to forget that the government approved the plans to shutter the estates and put the workers on the breadline. Further to that, GuySuCo is a state-owned enterprise and, therefore, the government has an obligation to the workers.

That newscast also reported Minister Holder as saying “…that the sugar workers may prefer to receive their severance in instalments so that they will not be tempted to spend it all out at once”. It seems Minister Holder perched atop his ivory tower is unaware of the realities and difficulties the workers face. Certainly, had they desired their payments in increments they would have so expressed that desire. Moreover, how does the Minister explain the workers’ very vocal demands to receive their payments in one instalment? What is more worrying though, is that the Minister seems to say that the workers need to contend with their severance monies for some period as they have no other income to look forward to. That, if it is so, seems to indicate that no accommodation whatsoever has been made by the coalition government to address the gainful employment of the displaced workers.

At this time, the GAWU recalls that the AFC in a statement issued, on December 7, 2017 said, among other things, that “[t]he Party insists that as per the requirements in law, severance must be in place”. Based on the now admissions by the AFC leaders who are also Cabinet members, they were well aware that the call issued in their statement was utterly wrong and, therefore, participated actively to mislead and hoodwink the Guyanese people and more so the thousands in the sugar belt who are affected by the callous and cruel plans to minimize the sugar industry.

For the GAWU, it is disheartening also to recognize that the AFC’s press conference took place on the same day that the world took time to pause and reflect on the life and work of Dr Martin Luther King, whose advocacy on behalf of the downtrodden is well known and which serves as an inspiration for the working and oppressed people of the world.

Yours faithfully,
Seepaul Narine
General Secretary
GAWU

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