Way past time society deals with race and attendant issues constructively

Dear Editor,

Efforts by the Chairman of the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) via the media to elevate the conversation of race and employment within this institution with the statistical breakdown of those in its employ are noted (SN June 10, 2018). This nation has to: 1) recognise the importance of race to human comity and development and; 2) start addressing race in a constructive and structured manner. We are having this conversation today because Commissioner Robeson Benn, PPP- representative on GECOM, has made the allegation that up to 90 percent of those employed at GECOM are Africans.

GECOM’s statistics advise that 46 percent of Africans are in its employ and 51 percent are at its Head Office. But the contention here, according to Benn, is that that GECOM has a discriminatory policy to favour Africans and discriminate against other races.

Given his position, in GECOM and politics, and the sensitivity of race where it is used as a wedge in our society it requires of Benn justifying the allegation, which is considered serious. There is a need for information to be brought to the fore advising society of –

i.   what was the ratio of African versus East Indian and other races in the employ of GECOM during the period of the PPP/C administration;

ii.   how many vacancies occurred since the PPP/C demitted office;

iii.   the race of the applicants who applied to fill those vacancies and whether he or she met the requirement to: a) be interviewed and; 2) how each participant feared at the interview; and

iv.   The cultural dynamics as to the group(s) that gravitate(s) to the state sector and private sector and in which agency.

The absence of addressing these and other considerations would create doubt and suspicion as to Commissioner Benn’s motive. Historically the charges of discrimination against the East Indian community has always been a mantra of the PPP. This is evidence from the early 1960s which caused the Forbes Burnham Government in 1965 to invite the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) to then British Guiana to conduct an inquiry and make recommendations.  In as much as the charges were laid by the PPP, the party refused to appear before the ICJ to lead evidence in this regard.

Throughout the life of the PNC government the PPP made charges that the PNC, in its employment practice, was deliberately discriminating against the East Indian community and repeatedly demanded that this be corrected by instituting “ethnic balance” in the state sector. The call for “ethnic balance” in the state sector was not extended to the call for similar employment practice throughout the country, which meant and still means that some groups will always be discriminated against.

For 23 years the PPP was in office (1992-2015) and not one written policy on the issue of Equal Employment Opportunity can be found anywhere, prepared and promulgated by that administration. It is instructive that having failed through a structured approach to bring about such practice, since it was placed in the Opposition allegations of discrimination against East Indians have surfaced.  Addressing such a charge needs to be based on evidence not gut-feeling or playing on racial fears. Further, there must be the clear distinction between political/government employment vis a vis state employment.

Commissioner Benn has to be careful that his charge is not that of whipping up sentiments of mistrust and fear but one grounded in evidence that the Indian community is being targeted for economic discrimination.

While the PPP makes the charge of East Indians being discriminated against in employment, this country has on record such a programme was instituted by the PPP when it came to office in 1992. African career public servants, a category different from political government appointees, were systematically removed primarily because of their race and perceived political persuasion, both of which are violations of their constitutional right to freedom of association (Article 147) and protection from being discriminated against on the grounds of race (Article 149). Society would recall Roger Luncheon in the witness box, under oath, telling the court words to the effect that no African was appointed Head of Mission in any of our embassies or high commissions because none was found to be qualified!

While the PPP/C administration failed to address race and employment practices in a constructive manner the APNU+AFC administration must be called upon to deliver. It is way past time this society grows up and deals with race and its attendant issues constructively.

The charge of racial discrimination against any group is serious and must be treated as such. It points again to the importance of having a Ministry of Labour, which historically is tasked with responsibility for workers’ well-being. Contrary to the perception that such a ministry deals only with conflicts between trade unions and employers, its scope is deep and wide, drawing from across ministries and agencies, local and international, in ensuring the welfare of the people in the society by placing them as central to development. Its work can address the critical issue of making sure a policy, programmes and legislation are put in place to constructively address the right of every group in equal employment opportunity across the board. This ministry is also tasked with the responsibility of putting people in productive employment.  In so doing areas such as population growth, racial development, new economic opportunities, graduates coming from various institutions, age of current workforce, a Job Creation Plan, Poverty Alleviation Strategy, domestic welfare, the retirement community etc would be factors for consideration and attention. We must get to work in addressing race and diversity in meaningful ways.

Yours faithfully,

Lincoln Lewis

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