The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) has noted several sections of the media reported on comments from the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Bharrat Jagdeo made during his press conference on January 27, 2018 with respect to our union and the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NAACIE) meeting with a ministerial delegation on January 19, 2018 at the Ministry of the Presidency. From the January 28, 2018 Guyana Times report on the press conference we recognized the Opposition Leader was quoted to have said: “…I’ve always supported their [GAWU] struggle”. The GAWU appreciates Mr Jagdeo’s support especially at this time when tens of thousands of Guyanese are facing severe difficulties and challenges arising from the callous plans to miniaturize the sugar industry, but the Opposition Leader, according to the press, disagreed, seemingly and unfortunately, with our union and the NAACIE’s decision to engage the government.
The press reported that Mr Jagdeo quoted from sections of the Government’s Department of Public Information (DPI) statement that was issued after the meeting of January 19 and took issue with comments made by our union’s President at the conclusion of the meeting. Those sentiments, we should add, were shared by our union’s delegation. While the GAWU recognizes and respects Mr Jagdeo’s right to an opinion it was disappointing that he, from all appearances, wasn’t armed with or did not pay serious attention to the press release the GAWU issued after the meeting. Had Mr Jagdeo been so armed, possibly, he may have reached a different conclusion. Nevertheless, the Opposition Leader is entitled to his views as the GAWU is too.
The Opposition Leader questioned what “common ground” the sugar unions and the government reached. It seems maybe Mr Jagdeo misunderstood the conclusion of the meeting, as both GAWU and NAACIE undertook to work with the government in reaching “common ground”. We did not advise that “common ground” was reached. In fact, the GAWU statement pointedly said: “[o]ur Unions [GAWU and NAACIE] recognized the importance of working along with the Administration in finding an acceptable solution to the crisis which has now beset scores of communities and thousands of Guyanese”. It is in this context that our union expressed our cooperation. Moreover, the Opposition Leader who was President for over a decade should know better than most that issues of this nature and magnitude cannot be resolved in a fully comprehensive way at a single meeting though one would wish that could happen.
Mr Jagdeo goes on according to the Guyana Times saying “What’s the future engagement? Hiring back the 7000 workers? Paying them their severance? Getting subsidies and land for them? Getting them more training, loans for them?” We are indeed surprised by the Opposition Leader’s statements as these are exactly some of the points and more that our union raised with the government. In our presentation, we reiterated our strongly held position that the decision to shutter estates was incorrect and that there were several workable ideas to secure the sugar industry and urged the administration to re-look and re-think its decision. In addition, we told the government that we disagreed with privatization but said that if this is the administration’s intention we called for those arrangements to be transparent. We went on and urged that maximum value be secured for the assets and, therefore, in keeping with such a stance the workers should be re-employed, the estates be re-opened and made into going concerns before any sale takes place. Additionally, we insisted that the government ensure that certain critical working conditions and rights are respected if there will be new owners. With respect to land for the displaced workers, our union advised the government that we believe that the one acre touted for each worker would be insufficient. But more than that, on this issue, we told the government team that several essential matters needed to be considered and fully addressed. The issues we raised included financing, marketing, income challenges, infrastructural development and location of lands, among other things. On the issue of severance, when this was raised from the government’s side, both GAWU and NAACIE took a non-negotiable position that severance entitlements, in keeping with the provisions of the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act (TESPA) as well as the practice, ought to be paid at one time and not in staggered payments as was suggested by the government. These matters were explained in more detail in our press statement, but it is unfortunate that Mr Jagdeo maybe didn’t have an opportunity to examine the copy that was sent to him electronically. Certainly, had the Opposition Leader required more information he could have requested a copy of our presentation which would have better edified him on the matters we raised, and provided him with an opportunity for any further clarification.
Regarding the Opposition Leader’s view that the engagement is merely public theatrics by the government, this perception is not lost on us. We have had a long history of engagement with GuySuCo and different governments with results which were both positive and negative.
It is incumbent on the union to engage the administration in all possible avenues in order to further the workers’ interests and rights. Our union’s view is that in the difficult conditions workers are now confronting we should not close our mind, ears and eyes to any sort of engagement, for doing otherwise, in this instance, would certainly not be pleasing to the beleaguered, jobless workers. Our union recognizes that inasmuch as we will continue to press in the public arena the workers’ plight, at the same time experience teaches us that, at the end of the day, decision-makers will unavoidably be a central player in addressing the crucial issues and win gains in our continuing, many-sided struggles.
Moreover, if it is that the government is insincere, as Mr Jagdeo seemingly charges, then our union cannot be criticized for not trying. It is dismaying that our union is singled out for this sort of criticism recognizing that several organisations are engaging the state on matters of concern. Why is a different yardstick being applied to GAWU? A question to ponder on?
The Opposition Leader, from what we read in the Times article, recognized that the GAWU has “good, strong, young, bright leaders”. It is heartening that Mr Jagdeo recognizes the depth of our leadership who are involved together with our more experienced comrades to consider collectively our union’s approach and tactics. At this time, the GAWU believes that it should use every arena and leave no stone unturned to further the struggle of the sugar workers, and engagement with the government is one such plank. In fact, GAWU is no stranger to engaging government on workers’ matters. In our years of association with the sugar industry, the GAWU has engaged every Head of State from the late President LFS Burnham. Our union approaches our discussions with the administration in good faith and is hopeful that the workers’ causes will be advanced especially given the terrible times that are facing so many ordinary Guyanese in the sugar belt.