Cooperatives won’t work for laid-off sugar workers

Dear Editor,

I have known Honourable Keith Scott, Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection with responsibility for Labour, for many decades. I have great respect and admiration for him and I therefore paid attention to his recent call for laid-off sugar workers, now on the breadline facing abject poverty and starvation, to form cooperative societies.

Minister Scott told the laid off sugar workers that his Ministry will give support and provide training to those who want to go this route.

I have no objection to the philosophy of cooperative societies. In some countries, well-organised, properly run cooperative societies have achieved significant benefits for their members. However, Minister Scott must consider whether cooperative societies are relevant to our country at this juncture of our modern culture and lifestyle. Are they pertinent in Guyana at a time when everyone wants to own a small business?

Furthermore, shouldn’t this call have come earlier, to prepare the people’s minds and get them accustomed and amenable to the idea as preparations were being made to shut down the factories?  As Government was preparing to close the estates, couldn’t we have begun the process of teaching these people to survive outside of estate life? They could have been introduced to the concept of working with a cooperative spirit since then. Maybe this will teach us something for the future.

This government is trying to revive a cooperatives movement from the 60s and 70s which was being pursued by the Government of that era. The intention of the administration of the day was obviously noble.  Minister Scott announced about a year ago that their efforts resulted in an increase in cooperative societies in Guyana. I predict that this will be a revolving door; most will not last and will be constantly replaced by new ones.

Let’s go back in history right here in Guyana. I am an ‘old head’ who has witnessed a lot of Guyana’s history as it unfolded. I was a boy in high school when Forbes Burnham became Prime Minister. He was still in power when I moved to Georgetown and set up my own business.

Guyana pushed the cooperative movement or cooperative spirit as we moved towards Independence, long before the nation became a Cooperative Republic. The results of these experiments raise a burning question: Can cooperatives ever be successful in Guyana as a tool for economic growth?

The cooperative spirit was a vibrant theme back in the day and cooperatives sprang up everywhere. Some were successful initially and a few have survived until today; however, most collapsed in shame and scandal because members stole from each other and from the cooperatives.

Cooperatives can be successful. The world has many successful cooperatives and credit unions play a leading role. But in my opinion, due to their propensity for fraud, it will be hard for them to be a success for laid-off sugar workers.

I remember that the administration of the day, because of the makeup of Black Bush Polder, spearheaded the formation of a cooperative in a special area there that they had identified. The Government of the day selected people who did not have much agricultural experience and tried to assist them by making them self-sufficient and in the process attempted to create integration in the area among Guyanese. The idea was to provide opportunity to people not exposed to farming.

I recall that the administration provided lands, equipment and machinery as well as seeds and consultation support services. In principle, they were right. Why not help those in need to be self-sufficient? But what happened?

Sometime after, I passed through the area and all I could see was a couple of ochro trees over 15 feet tall with little ones on top. It had become a wilderness; where abandoned vehicles lay rusting and wasted. I was told that members of the cooperative had been stealing the wheels and parts and were also stealing from each other as well.

Unfortunately, this is a sad reality of human nature.

Now, let us look at the GUYSUCO situation.  I am from a sugar-producing community and while I sympathise with the laid-off workers, I am aware that many GUYSUCO workers were responsible for the theft of tools, equipment, parts and so on. I viewed this as sabotage.

It is common knowledge that corrupt business-people routinely bought stolen items from GUYSUCO workers and resold them at high prices. If theft by workers was commonplace at GUYSUCO and in failed cooperative societies, what sense does it make to ask laid-off sugar workers to form cooperatives?

The Honourable Minister Scott is obviously trying to find ways and means to make it easier for the laid off workers. The cooperative movement was at its zenith when he was a young man and must have resonated strongly with him. But bearing in mind the results of every election since Independence, the laid-off sugar workers come from areas that historically opposed the administration of the 1960s and 1970s and their policies. What will make these people embrace the concept today and make it work? Can they be successfully encouraged to do so, Mr. Minister?

Minister Scott, your idea might look good in principle, but how practical is it? Have you thought of the historical political preferences and mindset of the laid-off workers? Can you therefore guess why this idea will be a ‘hard sell’ in the sugar belt?

Try it, Minister Scott, and see if it will work. Maybe you could draw from the experiences of countries where cooperatives were more successful and also from Guyana’s experiences. I hope you succeed, but as a realist I don’t think it will bear fruit.

Yours faithfully,

Roshan Khan Snr.

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