Hostility to Chand relates to his stance on behalf of sugar workers in government negotiations

Dear Editor,

The Guyana Times Tuesday, January 2, 2018, edition carried as its front page a lead article captioned, ‘Sugar workers call for Komal Chand to resign’.

On reading of this development my first response was to question the reliability of the story, and, more importantly, I tried to understand what are the political inferences which could be drawn from the article. When I considered that Guyana Times, the so called ‘Beacon of Truth’ is a newspaper firmly aligned with the PPP/C, the close relationship between its owner and the Leader of the Opposition and General Secretary of the PPP Bharrat Jagdeo, and given that party’s historic control of the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU), I concluded that the article represented a deliberate/organized/attack by elements at the highest level of the PPP to destroy Komal Chand.

The present hostility to Mr Chand to all appearances, has to do with him taking off his political hat and in the process, demonstrating that as a union leader, he was prepared to assume a more mature posture in the ongoing talks with the government on the issue of the payment of severance to sugar workers and related matters as the effort of right-sizing GuySuCo’s operations proceeds. At the initial discussions an agreement was arrived which will see lower end, severed workers receiving their full severance pay by the 31 January 2018, and the remaining workers, payment in two parts, 50% by January 31st 2018 and the remaining 50% in the latter part of the year. This agreement between the union and government has not found favour with the political bosses in Freedom House, who, it is clear don’t see the workers’ welfare as being paramount. The primary objective of Mr Jagdeo and the other leaders in the PPP is to use the sugar workers’ issue as a political football.

Given the relations between GAWU and the PPP, it is unlikely that Chand would have agreed to the engagement with the government without the support of the PPP/C leadership. Apparently, the PPP/C and Jagdeo in agreeing to the engagement did so with the expectation that the talks would not have resulted in any positive result. That miscalculation was based on their expectation that the government would have held steadfast to its earlier position. However, to the government’s credit, it moved away from its original position and made the kind of offer that no right-thinking union leader, particularly one operating in the context of GAWU and the sugar workers situation would not have embraced. As things now stand the union remains firm on its position that all severed workers should be paid in full, but at the same time it accepts the government offer to make full payments to lower end workers.

To any right-thinking individual, Mr Chand, who in agreeing to the government’s proposal must have taken into consideration the financial difficulties the government and GuySuCo are faced with, would be applauded for protecting the interests of the most vulnerable of the sugar workers, while signalling at the same time, his commitment to continue the struggle on behalf of the other affected workers. Chand’s success at the talks with government was not part of the Jagdeo/PPP’s game plan. Their response was to encourage their political activists in the sugar communities to wage a party directed campaign against Komal Chand. The almost 2000 workers, who are to receive their full severance, must be perturbed over the attitude of GAWU’s bosses in the PPP/C. Convention demands that union leaders, all union leadership, regardless of their political loyalty, must, as a matter of duty and principle, put the interest of the workers above that of their party. This is what Komal Chand did when, in the interest of GAWU’s members, he agreed with the decision to bring needed and immediate relief to a specific section of the severed workers. It is very clear that Mr Jagdeo and the other political bosses in the PPP would have preferred the talks to be deadlocked thereby providing him with more political ammunition.

GAWU for most of its history has acted in line with party dictates on matters of the sugar industry and the nation. The first significant departure from this policy occurred during Mr Jagdeo’s presidency, when the union opposed the government treatment of sugar workers. The government in an unprecedented manner, through the then Minister of Labour, Mr Nanda Gopaul, publicly threatened to derecognize the union as the bargaining agent for the sugar workers. That public rift between the PPP/C and GAWU took place with Komal Chand at the head of the union. Unlike the previous situation where the internal party struggle between the Jagdeo faction the (young turks) and the party ‘old guard’ was at the centre of the dispute, the present situation seems to be somewhat different.

The article contains the following accusations against Mr Chand that are designed to destroy his character and reputation as a fighter for sugar workers and workers in general, and a party loyalist. The accusations against him are many and read like a litany of woes. He is now being portrayed as a traitor, failing to represent sugar workers, collecting millions in union dues for the union, betraying workers, holding responsibility for the decline of the industry, loss of zeal and being unable to serve the interest of the workers anymore. As such, he is portrayed as incapable of leading the union, and that he should step aside in favour of a younger, more dynamic, leader. Of political significance is one of the front page leads in the Guyana Times in its Thursday January 25, 2018 edition, referencing comments by political commentator and economist Ramon Gaskin, captioned ‘“Fire Komal Chand” -former presidential advisor’.

It is still too early to predict how this plot against Komal Chand will play out and whether the veteran trade unionist and political leader will prevail. Already, cracks (Guyana Chronicle Jan  25, 2018 quoted PPP MP Indra Chandarpal supporting Chand) are showing up in what initially appeared to have been a united front to teach the GAWU strong man a lesson ‒ they have no misgivings about destroying one of their own who has demonstrated throughout his life unquestionable loyalty.

Yours faithfully,

Tacuma Ogunseye

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