Before unthinkingly closing estates, gov’t should have prepared sugar workers for possibility of cooperatives

Dear Editor,

It seems that I touched a sensitive nerve unintentionally when I wrote a letter recently suggesting that Government’s initiative spearheaded by Minister Keith Scott to get laid off sugar workers to form cooperatives might not be the best option for them at this time.

Someone from the Minister’s team, Kenava Elious, responded in the Stabroek News July 11, 2018 edition by accusing me of not doing research and not presenting “empirical evidence” to support my contention, among other misguided comments.

Let me make it clear that I am not against cooperatives. Under the right circumstances and with the right people, cooperatives can be successful. My point is simple. At this time in Guyana’s history, the right circumstances might not exist for successful cooperatives in the areas where most former sugar workers reside. And they might not be the right people to form successful cooperatives.

Everybody knows that most cooperatives formed in Guyana failed. Everybody knows that many Guyanese connect cooperatives to a particular political party. Everybody also knows that former sugar workers live in communities that traditionally oppose the party that people link to cooperatives. Therefore, Government has a challenging task to get former sugar workers embrace cooperatives and make them work.

Also, I know for a fact, by communicating directly with many of these terminated sugar workers, that they have bitterness in their hearts. Their lives are in confusion and they appear to be unforgiving.  For me, this is a sad state of affairs. It pains my heart that those in the Skeldon/Corriverton area where I grew up, former sugar workers are thronging and begging for jobs in any capacity to make ends meet. The fact that I do not have contracts in the area to absorb these people disturbs me.

So, Kenava Elious, I might not have empirical evidence from formal research, but I have lots of information acquired by observation. I meet these people and they call me. Their wives and children Whatsapp me, appealing for jobs.  This is where the closure of the various sugar factories in the important zones in the sugar belt affects me personally, because I know and you know there was no preparation or education of these people about cooperatives and proper investment of their severance pay.

My other great worry is that while looking for employment, their severance will be eaten out and they will be left with nothing in their hands. Then, drastic desperation and confusion will reign in their minds. It’s not dozens of people, but thousands who have been terminated without due diligence, preparation and organisation.

I know that the Government will be willing to assist in the cooperative ventures of groups. I have faith in the Government. But feeding the idea of cooperatives into the minds of confused and vexed people will be a tough sell. I am not speaking philosophy. I am speaking reality. I originate from the bosom of the sugar belt, among sugar workers.

I believe Government initiatives must be practical to succeed. I recall the words of the great American president Abraham Lincoln, who famously said: “. . . public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed”. With that in mind, I ask: Is the public sentiment of former sugar workers for or against cooperatives? I will be the first person to applaud Minister Scott and his team if they can persuade former sugar workers to form successful cooperatives.

I know that when people are helped to develop their own businesses by the sweat of their own brows, and when what they get from the business is in proportion to what they put in, there is a much higher chance that they would succeed. In my opinion, businesses based on group mentalities are more likely to go awry. There are usually quarrels and fights for leadership and members tend to grumble about the returns. Some cannot deal with financial responsibilities and start to steal.

The writer of the response to my letter alluded to me being a disciple of Minister Keith Scott. I have never been anyone’s disciple. I have a strong aversion to the word ‘disciple’ being used to categorise me. I understand mentors and persons who inspire. The Minister has his way of thinking and I am not necessarily completely with him in everything he says and does, and he is not always fully in step with me on every issue, such as the plan to push former sugar workers into cooperatives.

The writer’s response failed to touch on one of the most important aspects of my letter. Why is it that the Ministry, the Honourable Minister and the Government did not think about starting to educate and prepare sugar workers to form cooperatives from the inception of the idea to close the sugar estates? That would have been the best time to feed the minds of sugar workers with the idea of cooperatives, the pooling of money in various ventures for the common good of members of the cooperatives. Why wait until the workers were already off their jobs and facing desperate circumstances before telling them that you will help them to form cooperatives?

I advise the Honourable Minister and the writer of his reply to re-read my first letter and the points I made about keeping these people economically vibrant.

I wrote that the former sugar workers are facing starvation. It means this is a possibility. However, with our seas and our lands, I do not think it is possible for Guy-anese to be in a state of mass starvation. The former sugar workers are definitely facing serious hardships and their spokespersons have said so publicly. When the minds of the people are in confusion, strain and stress, it is not easy for them to focus and they can fall into depression.

There is serious poverty and the people have less to eat than they did before. I have been there; I have seen with my own eyes deprivation and confusion among the people and some have approached me and gotten help from me. The entire sugar belt is in crisis and many former sugar workers living there seem to think they have no future.

It is good that Government, through the efforts of Minister Scott and others, is trying to address these issues. Nevertheless, I think they should have been more patient while slaking their thirst to close the sugar estates and I think they made a big made a mistake by not preparing the sugar workers early for the loss of their jobs. Now, the entire country suffers one way or another.

Another case of good intentions gone wrong was the decision to scrap Guyana’s railway and expand the local bus company. The bus company flopped and the ‘Tata’ and ‘Sanos’ buses ended up rusting in the ‘bus graveyard’ on Mandela Avenue in Georgetown. If we still had a railway, touts would never be dragging people and herding them into minibuses like cattle. The train would have handled public transport comfortably; who knows, we might have had a subway by now.

This is my last correspondence on the matter. I trust that readers who follow the thread of my commentaries will know that I am a patriot and, as such, I am always on the positive side of any issue related to Guyana’s development and prosperity.

Yours faithfully,

Roshan Khan Snr.

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