There should be a national strike of sugar workers to secure their severance benefits

Dear Editor,                                                       

The late President Dr Cheddi Jagan was demonized by the People’s National Congress during the 1970s for inciting strikes in the sugar belt.  Today, however, the PNC-led coalition administration stands as a history lesson for our youths, as this very same PNC continues in its old ways of encroaching on sugar workers’ welfare, dogging and harassing them over their legally due severance entitlements, and demonstrating a consistent failure to make adequate provision for them as the sugar industry continues to bottom out.

Today marks just over a month since the release of the first part of the retrenched sugar workers’ severance. It also marks the same period over which the coalition administration has knowingly to continued in the act of breaking Guyana’s laws governing the full payment of severance to these workers.  I have written, and will continue to write in protest about this issue, because I have to accept my responsibility for their being in office, and will not countenance any of their abuse of sugar workers, or whomever.  There is little question that what is being perpetrated by this administration in relation to sugar workers undermines their welfare, threatens their economic survival, and amounts to a clear abuse of governmental powers.

What has become clear is that the administration has mishandled the sugar industry in the worst way possible, and there seems no end or solution in sight for the corporation itself or the sugar workers.  The decision to reopen the closed estates for divestment might have been to gain political mileage, but this speaks to the gross mishandling of the sugar industry in its entirety, without any sound plan or consideration for the severe economic impact such decisions will likely have.  One of the major observations which should guide reliance on the sugar industry as an economically viable concern is that much if not all of GuySuCo’s arable land has been exhausted, so that there can be little expectation of higher yields that could boost the industry’s profitability either now or in the future.

On the particular issue of the sale of these estates, it has already been submitted that these estates should not be sold, but instead be contracted out to investors, since any sale of GuySuCo’s land attached to these estates as a going concern will constitute a virtual give away of otherwise highly valuable assets, all of which can be returned to the state for alternative economic activities, or distributed to sugar workers to aid in their adjustment.  With the long term viability of any of these financially distressed estates already being considered as close to nil, such sales will constitute a virtual rip-off as investors will invariably convert these lands to capitalize on their real value.

While the opening of these estates may yield some income to sugar workers in the near term, over the long haul sugar workers can expect to be used as economic pawns until the so-called investors declare that the estates are indeed unsustainable and will have to be shut.

Guyanese, particularly public servants, well know that it is extremely difficult if not impossible to manage a family on $100,000/month. A little contemplation should reveal that it is very likely that quite a few sugar workers will use up their first severance payout well before they receive the second severance payout.  In the likely event that many will still be either unemployed or underemployed, they will find themselves and their families in no-man’s-land.

Government’s manipulation of the payments of severance payments is wholly unconscionable, wrong and illegal, since it is a wilful act which could translate into extreme human suffering, particularly where there are children involved.  It is suggested that GAWU and the sugar workers not wait to see what will almost certainly unfold.  They should act now and do what needs to be done to avoid the impending economic disaster that will greet them when their first severance payout finishes.  The union should immediately seek redress in the courts which could include punitive and other damages, along the allocation of lands for sugar workers at the negotiating table.  If there ever was a time for sugar workers to strike, it is now.  The union should also call on all sugar workers to engage in a national strike to force this administration to pay their full severance.  The policy-makers in this administration do not anymore deserve the support of Guyanese.

Yours faithfully,

Craig Sylvester

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