Sugar industry must now grapple with replacement of historic collective agreement

Dear Editor,

The sugar industry has for centuries provided many traumatic experiences for those who have lived and worked in it; to the extent that management, workers and the unions who have represented the latter have learnt to take stress for granted.

From the perspective of those who have had experiences in other work environments, there is need to adapt to a level of emotional discipline which is so required to manage the range of human relationships that obtain, not simplistically only between individuals, but more profoundly, amongst different categories of thousands of workers – at one time (in the 1950’s) as many as 28,000. And even though the total population kept reducing over time, the population on any one estate has hardly been less than two thousand.

Perhaps the most normal stress factor in the human relations scenario has been that involving the various representative Unions, interestingly enough all based on ‘Collective Agreements‘. As it turned out the word ‘Agreement’ has proven to be a contradiction, in that almost daily, it is the basis for ‘disagreement’ between the parties.

Indeed it is quite possible that the records would show that not only would the Guyana sugar industry have endured more strike days than perhaps the total of its counterparts in Caricom at its peak; but that the frequency would certainly outnumber the total incidence of strikes amongst other organisations in Guyana, and very likely, highly competitive with most industries in any part of the world. It is as if it were continually necessary for the one Union to justify its self-worth and that to its membership, by committing to what may be interpreted as a strike schedule.

What was also interesting was that the management cadre most of whose DNA has been embedded in the sugar industry, accepted strikes as par for the course. A well informed inductee to GuySuCo would, over time, come to understand that management had ceased to regard strikes as an aberration, and consequently were content, so to speak, and to endure working in an environment of antagonisms as routine. More than that, both manager and managed simply accepted these as unavoidables.

Nor do the leaders on either side of the ‘Agreement’ seem to have ever come to the realisation that inherent in the so-called victories of one party over the other, the industry itself had lost – in all forms – production, productivity and of course financial viability. In short there were, and are, never any substantive winners.

Few outside of the industry would be acquainted with the statistics which would reflect the persistent depletion of these mass absences from work.

One staple ingredient of a strike is known as ‘obstacles’ over which extra payment has to be negotiated repetitiously.

There was a period when concessions about such payments were too often made by management who at the time were sensitive of the strategic connection between the Union involved and the political decision-makers of the day.

It was under this same regime that the industry, having ‘collectively’ agreed annual production targets with that Union, that executive management found itself against glaring logic, having to pay the annual production incentive (?), despite defaulting on the achievement of targets (largely due to strikes). Even in the face of regime change the Union boldly insisted on such indulgence, admittedly without positive responses from a new and more assertive management team

Simplistic as the above examples may appear, the fact is that the resultant disturbances contributed, not only to the reduction of physical products, but much more fundamentally, the depletion of morale at critical job levels and the consequent migration of sorely needed technical skills and management competencies.

It is contended that not enough attention has been paid by observers, commentators and other stakeholders in the industry, to the considerable erosion of the human capital required for its sustainability.

Indeed, for sugar the descriptor ‘industry’ is an oversimplification. Too few observers recognise that

historically the organisation has always accepted the role and responsibility of being the first citizen in every community it has operated.

Too few recognise how comprehensive has been its contribution to education and training of every level of its human capital, and moreso the children of its various categories of workers. (The Apprentice Training School of 61 years is an example, alongside the Guyana School of Agriculture and the University of Guyana).

Too many are clueless about the historic breadth and depth of the industry’s free medical services to all employees, their spouses and unemployed children up to age 18 years, and its pensioners. Historic in the sense that there can be found no comparable employment condition anywhere; for it is supported by a Contributory Hospitalisation and Maternity Scheme for all monthly/ weekly paid employees; while everyone benefits from the National Insurance Scheme – to which the Corporation must be the biggest single contributing employer.

For some it may well be repetitious to refer to the industry’s direct contribution to communities through the long established Community Centres and the related Welfare programmes, including sports and other social development activities that have produced many national achievers.

Meanwhile, short term considerations of impacts on field and factory would have delayed the aggressive implementation of modernisation or indeed introduction, of technology-driven approaches to work practices that could well have significantly reduced operating costs, and compensate for building employee attendance.

It is against this background and more, that the decision-makers and other stakeholders need to understand the impact made on, and by, the industry’s deconstruction, and the intrinsic implications of the termination of the employees at different levels, and of various categories; that we should understand the pathology of what in industrial relations terms is called ‘Severance’.

For it is not a simple administrative act; nor the mere fulfilment of a clause in a Collective Agreement. It has to be experienced in order to come to grips with the range of emotions that are felt and conveyed (sometimes in eloquent silence) in the interactions between the messenger and the receiver, between the employer and the severed.

It is a time when perhaps the former needed to be more sensitive (or at least equally) than the latter, since he/she must relate to a range of feelings (in some cases numbness).

For it is impossible not to be aware, of not only of the disruption of a career which, more often than not, has been exclusively in sugar (now bitter) but the possible depletion of individual manhood or womanhood, of the image of authority in an organised family; of the loss of a sense of leadership and of being a positive example to one’s progeny.

How does one explain to a pleading child that he/she is no longer a working parent that he/she no longer has lessons to learn at the workplace that can be brought home and passed on to an inquisitive young student? Much more critically, how does one explain that the compensation for being severed may restrict supporting the educational development of the child indefinitely, because in fact there is not yet any definite prospect of alternative work, certainly not with comparable compensation?

In the milieu of frustration he/she has to come to grips with another reality – not having given sufficient service to become eligible for a pension.

All this and more, reflected in the mindset of the employer at the end of 2017, when there could be no ‘Happy Christmas’ and certainly no immediate chance of prosperity in the so called ‘New Year’ to be offered.

Where and when again will there be a comparable compensation package to be found in relation to the last? Certainly the future would not be so well oiled.

But to the sugar industry and its projected reconstruction – a word that should have the most fundamental implications. It must speak to a totally different environment – one that eschews the constipation in a so-called ‘Collective Agreement’.

This means that the old worn out contestants must be brought to the platform of a new vision (or visionary) to arrive first at a truce on the battlefield of ‘industrial relations’, then move the goal posts to a playing field on which they can collaborate as a team, with all truly deserving of the Production Incentive.

Who will make the first positive move? Time is of the essence. There needs to be an explicitly crafted partnership, fully committed to progress and development, founded on mutual respect – a Memorandum of Understanding to replace a ‘Collective Agreement’.

Yours faithfully,

E.B. John

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