CCJ ruling underlined that the gov’t should have done a better job consulting with unions on the sugar industry

Dear Editor,

The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) has recognised that several sections of the press reported about the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) judgment regarding our Union’s and our colleague union – the National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees’ (NAACIE) – legal challenge to the decision by the Government of Guyana and the Guyana Sugar Corporation Inc (GuySuCo) to close the Skeldon, Rose Hall and East Demerara Estates at the end of 2017. Those reports reflected on several aspects of the judgment which demonstrates the breadth of the matter and the comprehensiveness of the issues that were put before the CCJ.

While indeed the CCJ disagreed with our representations regarding the adequacy of consultations on the estate closures, the Honourable Justices pointed out that the Government and GuySuCo just met the “…minimum requirements of meaningful consultations …”. Indeed this says a lot especially when one considers that thousands of Guyanese have been affected by the estate closures. The satisfaction of the barest minimum of engagement when considering the consequences of the decisions that were taken is a matter, we believe, our decision-makers cannot be elated about. It goes to show, in our view, that the decision-makers were engaged in a mere ritualistic exercise without any sincere consideration of how to avoid the repercussions of the closure.

In fact, the CCJ determined that the consultations between the Unions and the Government/GuySuCo were not perfect or ideal. The Court said “[i]n a matter of such national importance impacting such large number of workers the process could have been more extensive and more responsive to the concerns of the Applicants [GAWU and NAACIE]”. The Justices opined that “[n]otwithstanding the absence of a statutory obligation the Respondents ought to have given a considered response (whether written or oral) to the GAWU’s proposals explaining why they were not adopted”. Of course, the GAWU contends that such explanation would have been unconvincing recognizing that several of the Union’s proposals have been adopted by GuySuCo towards making the industry viable. The Court also felt that the Government and GuySuCo should have engaged the Unions regarding its plans for alternative employment for the now jobless workers. On this score, the GAWU’s knowledge is limited to what we read and hear in the press.

The CCJ also found that the High Court and Court of Appeal erred when they deemed that the Sugar Commission of Inquiry (CoI) “…was sufficient to satisfy the obligation to consult…”. The Justices found that closure was not recommended by the CoI and, therefore, GAWU and NAACIE were not able to make their views known on the matter. The CCJ also disagreed with the lower courts which determined that the Unions’ only remedy for GuySuCo’s contravention of the Trade Union Recognition Act was limited to the penalty of a fine of $56,000 and to imprisonment of 6 months which is prescribed in the Act.

The Court also did not find favour with the Attorney-General (AG) who argued that the CCJ should not consider the matter since it had become academic noting that the closure decision had been effected and the workers were made redundant. On this, the Justices citing relevant case law concluded that “…the determination of the dispute is of national importance…” and thus proceeded to hear the dispute. The CCJ also agreed with the Unions’ submission that the GuySuCo could not have been represented by the AG’s     chambers.

The Justices also determined that “…there was a legitimate expectation that the Applicants would have been consulted prior to the closure of the sugar Estates both because of longstanding GuySuCo policies and the specific promises by Vice President Ramjattan and Minister of State Harmon…” . Of great importance to us is the CCJ’s elucidation out of the consultation process. Here the Justices said there should be consultation when the proposals are still at a formative stage; there should be adequate information on which to respond; there ought to be adequate time in which to respond; and there must be conscientious consideration by an authority to the consultation. Notably several pieces of legislation require consultative engagements and thus we believe the setting out of the aforementioned parameters by the CCJ is both useful and timely.

We were also heartened to note that the CCJ recognised that “[t]he sugar industry has undoubtedly played a large part in the socio-economic development of Guyana. Thus, its future was an issue of national importance and required vigorous discussions with all stakeholders before an informed decision could be made. In this regard, the Respondents could have engaged with the Applicants on a deeper level…”. This is a stain of notoriety that further demonstrates the Administration’s lack of concern. 

While ultimately the verdict was not the one we would have preferred, the CCJ judgement, in our view, addressed several important and critical issues. The scope of the matters addressed goes to justify that our move to the Judiciary was a step in the right direction. While one section of the press, for reasons best known to them, has sought to cast aspersions we must once again reiterate that this decision, like all others, was considered and approved by the Union’s General Council. Such unwarranted and unnecessary attacks on our organisation are nothing more than malicious and wicked. 

The GAWU remains proud of its actions to defend and protect the workers. Our commitment is unwavering and our dedication unquestionable. The consequences of closure sadly will linger on but the legacy of the CCJ judgment will serve all Guyana well now and in the future as well.

Yours faithfully,

Seepaul Narine

GAWU

General Secretary

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