The situation in the sugar industry is not evolving in the best direction

Dear Editor,

Our union recognized, over the Easter holidays, a number of reports in various sections of the media regarding happenings and developments in the sugar industry.  For the GAWU, the shining of the spotlight on the industry is both welcome and an encouraging sign. And for the thousands who have been affected by the callous plans to minimize the industry it serves to tell them they have not been forgotten and there is still a great deal of concern about their well-being.

Though there hasn’t been any official announcement, as far as we are aware, we saw the Guyana Times of April 2, reporting that GuySuCo’s Chairman, Mr Colvin Heath-London, as saying “the SPU operations, in conjunction with GuySuCo, will be able to employ directly and indirectly in excess of 1000 people”. While heartened that as many as 1,000 retrenched workers have been re-employed, if the number is indeed accurate, it pales in comparison to the roughly 7,000 persons placed on the breadline following the closure of sugar estates in the last two years. For many of them, they still remain jobless eking out a living on whatever may come their way. Certainly, this is not the way our people should live. Undoubtedly, the champions of our independence in their wildest of dreams, would have never wanted the freedom they and others struggled for and eventually won to mean this humility our people find themselves in and the miserable existence they are now forced to contend with.

But while there seems to be some elation in the partial employment of 14 per cent of the retrenched workers, the fact is that a large number of those workers who have been re-engaged have not been hired by the SPU but by contractors and are engaged on short-term contracts. As the April 2, Stabroek News reported, those workers are being paid a flat rate which, for instance, does not take into consideration the conditions of the canes they harvest; the additional distances that they may be required to walk to load the canes; or if they are required to wait on punts to load canes. Added to that, no personal protective equipment, though required by law, is provided to them, neither are the workers in receipt of any tools to carry out their tasks. Furthermore, several important benefits, won out of the struggles of workers over many years, have been discontinued. Moreover, the workers are required, from their earnings, to make their contributions to the NIS and worse yet, when the crop comes to an end their employment with the contractor simply ceases to exist. Undoubtedly, it is a very depressing situation and when looked at in totality the workers are definitely worse off. Really, how much different, if at all, are such retrogressive conditions from the pre-independence era?

Clearly, at this stage of our development, it is a retrograde step and for us it is disheartening that workers are seemingly being taken advantage of, especially when they and their families find themselves in such a distressing and vulnerable situation. As we reflected on what is playing out in the sugar industry, we recalled not too long ago that Guyana, with the assistance of the ILO, launched its Decent Work Country Programme. A report from the DPI informed that Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo at the activity said “…we want to improve the lives of our people and how we can make Guyana a country where there is sustainable livelihood based on the availability of decent work”. Today, weeks later, the Prime Minister’s utterances ring hollow in the sugar belt.

The April 2, Guyana Chronicle also reported GuySuCo’s Agricultural Director, Dr Harold Davis Junior, saying that around 60 per cent of the $30B financing that was recently secured would be spent improving GuySuCo’s three factories. Dr Davis argued that the factories are in need of significant capital injection. This, however, is a perennial tune of GuySuCo. We recall, the recently departed CEO of GuySuCo, arguing as far back as 1993 the factories were falling apart and that they required substantial capital expenditure. Interestingly, a quarter of a century has gone by since then and the very factories remain operable. We accept that some investment may be needed but we are not convinced at this time that the vast sum quoted is required. We also share the view that the sum sought, and apparently approved, could have been utilized to improve all the estates and thus prevented the precarious situation thousands find themselves in nowadays.

The GuySuCo Agricultural Director also said investments would be made in co-generation and the production of plantation white sugar. Moving in this direction was also suggested by GAWU and while we welcome these initiatives, we recognize that conspicuously absent, so far, is a clear, defined and well-thought-out plan to support the investments contemplated in order to make GuySuCo viable. Certainly, the sugar workers, and more so the Guyanese people, need to be aware of what is intended and the path that will be taken to reach the destination. This is especially notable considering that $30B of the Guyanese people’s assets has been collateralized in a deal for which the details are still to be disclosed. Added to that, Dr Davis is quoted to have said “[w]hat we cannot go back to is a labour intensive sugar industry, we can’t go back there; we have to change this industry if it is going to be competitive, it has got to be a modernised industry”. From that statement, it could be said that employment in the industry would be reduced. This is in contrast from what President David Granger said in his message to the National Assembly on January 10, 2018. At that time, President Granger informed MPs that “[t]he Government is committed to making the industry efficient and competitive… preserving three enlarged estates and protecting the jobs of over 11,000 workers.”

The GAWU also recognized former GuySuCo HR Director, Mr Earl John, in the March 30, 2018 Kaieteur News, coming to the defence of his colleagues in management. In seeking to explain the situation, Mr John refers to figures related to workers earnings contained in the Sugar CoI report. It is dismaying that the former GuySuCo director has chosen to rely on the data of the CoI which has already been disproven by our union. Certainly, Mr John, who was the industry’s chief HR person for several months, would know that the data he is referring to does not bear any semblance to reality. Also, the former HR Director also would know that between 2015 and 2016, workers’ nominal incomes fell by 15 per cent. At the same time, remuneration relating to the Corporation’s topmost personnel rose by just over 80 per cent between 2015 and 2016.

Mr John also speaks about the Corporation’s provision of health care to workers and their families, seeming to forget that such facilities were not given freely but won through the struggle of the workers both past and present and are financed through the sweat and tears of the workers who are up before the crack of dawn and work in the rain and shine. The sugar industry’s health facilities are also available to those in the management who probably seldom utilize the services given their ability to seek care at private medical institutions. While Mr John readily relies on the CoI report with regard to workers earnings, that same report also recommended that the Corporation’s health facilities “…should be maintained especially as the public health services are still deficient and/or inaccessible”.

The situation in the sugar industry is quickly evolving not necessarily in the best direction. For the workers and those who depend on the industry this is not the news they would wish to receive at this time. For us it is indeed saddening that we have reached the state we find ourselves in, especially recognizing that it was not necessary given the opportunities for improvement and sustainability, and the serious consequences which have flowed from the decisions that have been taken.

Yours faithfully,

Seepaul Narine

General Secretary

GAWU

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