Where has GAWU been toxic?

Dear Editor,

The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) refers to Mr Steve Fraser’s letter titled ‘GAWU, the PPP/C and the Goose that laid the golden egg’ which appeared in the January 24, 2018 Kaieteur News. Our union appreciates Mr Fraser’s view that “[n]one of us can find comfort in the plight of the close to five thousand sugar workers who recently found themselves on the breadline”. But, then Mr Fraser goes on, contending that our union was an “adversary of the industry rather than… a partner”. We must ask the letter writer why our union would knowingly engage in actions that would lead to union members losing their jobs? Wouldn’t this be most absurd?

Then the letter writer continues contending that “…the burning of canes and the wilful destruction of plant and equipment became the core focus of GAWU…” But we must tell him and others who may harbour similar views that our union has never been engaged in or encouraged anyone or supported such acts. To do so can be likened to cutting your nose to spite your face. Mr Fraser also refers to strikes by workers. Though we clarified this matter on several occasions, for the benefit of those who may not have seen our previous explanations, the majority of “strikes” are really work stoppages which involve pockets of workers at the different estates and not the thousands of workers across the sugar industry. These stoppages arise after there is a breakdown in negotiations to arrive at suitable compensation, or as workers say “extras” for them to harvest canes which are overrun by grass and vines for instance, and which impede their work. We must add that these stoppages are legitimized by our Agreement with GuySuCo which recognizes that since these extras are not delineated in any way but are only determined through negotiation between the shop stewards and the management at the time the canes are to be harvested.

The public is then told about the workers’ benefits arising from the Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Scheme Committee (SILWFC) which assists sugar workers with housing loans, among other things. But Mr Fraser maybe is unaware that the work of SILWFC is in keeping with a recommendation that came from the Venn Commission in 1949. That Commission, for those who may not know, was set up by the Colonial Office after the June, 1948 gunning down of five sugar workers who have become known as the Enmore Martyrs. So while the letter writer decries, seemingly, the benefits the workers today enjoy it was born out of the spilt blood and consistent struggles of generations of those who came before them. Mr Fraser also speaks about “…free medical facilities and community/entertainment centres with cricket and football fields…” but again failed to recognize that these facilities did not come gratis but were funded by the wealth generated from the sugar workers’ labour in the fields, factories and offices and with their sweat and tears.

What about drainage and irrigation for a large swathe of the coast which benefits Guyanese whether they were linked with the sugar industry or not? Those operations were also funded by the wealth generated by the thousands of workers. Or, what about the billions of dollars the Treasury enjoyed through the Sugar Levy or the support Guyanese enterprises received through the graduates of the Port Mourant Training Centre, among so many other positive contributions of the industry. To look at what workers enjoy in isolation and in absence of the facts on the ground and in practice is disingenuous in our view.

Mr Fraser goes on contending that “[w]eek after week there continued to be wild cat strikes…” Again, which worker wakes up before the sun rises and makes all that effort to go to work to just strike? Certainly, the letter writer would not want to go to his job and then have new conditions imposed on him without some form of compensation, so why should any other worker have to do the same? The letter writer then says “the strikes were carried out with a venom against the PNC-led administration during its twenty-eight years in office”. This sentiment seems to indicate that workers’ actions were politically-flavoured, but were they? An examination of the data tells us those workers’ living standards, like those of nearly all Guyanese, declined considerably. Between 1976, the year the sugar industry was nationalized, and 1990, real wages in the sugar industry declined by 118 per cent. In other words what a worker was earning in 1976 when adjusted for inflation was more than what that same worker earned 24 years later in 1990 though he/she would have benefited, in some years, from wage rises. Certainly given that dismal view workers quite naturally would have been upset and reacted as workers do.

Then Mr Fraser concluded “GAWU… has been a toxic union and must be severely damaged in the eyes of potential investors”. Outside of sugar, our union represents workers in several private and public enterprises and we generally have good fruitful relations with those entities which have seen workers’ benefits and conditions steadily improving. Certainly a “toxic union” could not have accomplished such feats. But more than that we ask where has GAWU been toxic? Are we toxic because we forthrightly defend our members’ interests? Are we toxic because we have sought to advance the workers’ lot? Are we toxic because we disagree with decisions that are not in the interest of sugar workers and the country as a whole?

In as much as we recognize Mr Fraser’s limitations regarding our union’s activities, etc, we really cannot agree with him.

Yours faithfully,

Seepaul Narine

General Secretary

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