GAWU has taken principled position on sugar, gov’t has made numerous errors

Dear Editor,

The GAWU has seen Dr David Hinds’ response to our letter which appeared in the Stabroek News under the title `Why can’t GAWU acknowledge that this gov’t took the brave decision to confront the sugar problem?’; in the Kaieteur News with the title `Guyana has far to go for ethnic, political reconciliation’; and in the Guyana Times entitled `Guyana’s greatest enemies are its zero-sum politics, political culture’. Dr Hinds starts off by accusing our Union of ignoring his critical views regarding the implementation of the Administration’s plans for the sugar industry. On this score, we urge Dr Hinds to carefully re-read our letter as we did note his decrying of the Government’s failure to communicate its approach to sugar.

The political scientist then goes on to say that the Government established a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) which, in his words, was required to “investigate the problem” in the sugar industry. Here, we urge Dr Hinds to look at the Commission’s report, if he hasn’t read it as yet. There he would see, without ambiguity, that the Commission which comprised gentlemen chosen by the Government – with the exception of the GAWU representative – saying that the Coalition should not close estates. There he would see the Commissioners advising the Government that there was a possibility of overcoming the difficulties by pursuing sugar diversification. There he would see that the Commission telling the Government not to pursue non-sugar diversification on sugar lands. There he would learn that there is light at the end of the tunnel once the correct approach is adopted. Those and several other important recommendations were ignored by the Government. It seems, from all appearances, that the Administration was not pleased by the results of the Commission’s investigation. Maybe it didn’t have the narrative it sought.

Then the Government, even before the Commission’s report had time to gather dust, did the unthinkable and announced in January, 2016 that it would close Wales Estate. That closure put at direct risk the employment of 1,700 sugar workers and hundreds of cane farmers, and, indirectly, upset the lives of thousands of Guyanese resident along the West Bank of Demerara. At that time, the Government said it would pursue non-sugar diversification at Wales despite the realities of past failure and the recommendations of the Sugar CoI. To date, those initiatives have failed to come off the launching pad, save and except for a seed paddy experiment which had most disastrous results.

One, quite logically, thought the Administration would have had its fingers burnt with the Wales fiasco. But again they defied the odds when on December 31, 2016 the Government announced it would close the East Demerara and Rose Hall Estates and divest Skeldon Estate. This policy, we may add has not on to this time, benefitted from any study to determine the ramifications. At the end of it all, the workers of Skeldon, Rose Hall and East Demerara Estates have been put on the breadline. Even the statutory redundancy payments were bungled by the Administration which despite having months of advanced warning simply didn’t cater to make the payments.

The WPA Executive goes on to say that “…the government has pumped billions of dollars’ worth of subsidy in the industry…”. But what impact did it have? Sugar production, using round numbers, declined from 231,000 tonnes sugar in 2015 to 137,000 tonnes in 2017, a mammoth 40 per cent drop. Workers earnings fell by 15 per cent in the same period. Wages have been frozen at 2014 levels. The Annual Production Incentive, which dates back to colonial days, went to zero. Debt, which we have previously shared our concerns, has largely remained the same. But, at the same time, between 2015 and 2017, monies going to top management rose astronomically. All of this happened when the Administration, again using Dr Hinds’ words, “…took the brave decision to confront the sugar problem…”. Regarding the recently announced $30B financing package, we wish to advise Dr Hinds that those monies are intended to be utilized on the operational GuySuCo estates and not the “…upgrading of the closed estates…” as the good doctor posits.

Dr Hinds then says that “…the government’s action on the sugar industry is the closest it has come to a clear policy on anything”. If this is indeed the case, then may the Good Lord help the Guyanese people. The press is filled with reports of the confusion and clear indecision the Administration has had regarding sugar. Just in recent weeks, we saw the Agriculture Minister disowning the industry then suddenly resuming responsibility. The story of the confusion surrounding the appointment with the Board of Directors could probably provide substantial material for a book. And also we have seen the discord playing out in the media between the SPU and the GuySuCo.

We are then told that our views are driven by factors outside of compassion for the sugar workers. This is completely baseless and certainly not factual. We have demonstrated time and again our sincere concern about the well-being and welfare of sugar workers. Certainly, we have used every avenue to advance their cause and plight. We have put to the Government workable solutions to safeguard the sugar industry which the Administration has not responded to thus far. Incidentally, some of these, we understand, will be pursued using the $30B financing secured. Clearly, from all appearances, we were on the right track.

We have also not failed to attend any engagement the Government, the GuySuCo, or even the SPU have sought to invite us to. We have gone as far as meeting with President David Granger. If our intent, as Dr Hinds put it, was the “…demonization of the Government” wouldn’t our approach been different? But, at the same time, the Union cannot fail to call a spade a spade and put on record our serious concerns regarding the Administration’s approach to sugar and other matters of national life and our people’s well-being. We hope to continue in taking principled approaches and positions in our members’ interests and well-being and advocate proposals helpful, as we see it, to the industry.

Yours faithfully,

Seepaul Narine

General Secretary

GAWU

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