Administration’s approach to sugar has been far from clear

Dear Editor,

As GAWU is finalizing its preparations for its one-day conference entitled “Sugar – too big to fail” on September 04, 2018, our Union recognised that President David Granger at his inaugural press conference for the year addressed the sugar industry, among other things. According to a report in the September 02, Guyana Times, President Granger is quoted to have said “[s]o there is a future for sugar, a very clear future”. The statement by the President which on the surface appears to be rational is, however, far from the reality. Since President Granger became our country’s leader, his Government’s approach to the sugar industry has been the furthest from clear.

The nation will recall weeks after being sworn into office, the APNU+AFC Government established a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into the sugar industry. That CoI, which cost millions of dollars, spent hundreds of man hours: to review voluminous information; to receive testimony and submissions from several individuals and organisations; and to have a firsthand look at all the estates and to interact with workers and managerial personnel. The Commission came to the unambiguous conclusion that no estate must be closed taking account of the social fallout. Furthermore, the CoI went on to identify several sugar diversification initiatives that could turn the industry around.

It seems that the Sugar CoI report, findings and recommendations were not seriously considered and before the report had an opportunity to gather any dust, the Granger Administra-tion in January, 2016 announced that Wales Estate would be closed at the end of that year. The Minister of Agriculture and GuySuCo, at that time, shared that Wales Estate would serve as the launching pad for the state-owned sugar company re-entry into other crops pursuits.

The workers and the Guyanese people were told that ventures would be pursued in rice, aquaculture, dairy farming, orchard and livestock, among other things. The Administra-tion was reminded of the disastrous results that were experienced and heavy losses during the Corpora-tion’s last excursion into these areas. Sadly today nearly two years have gone by since Wales’ closure and apart from a seed paddy experiment, which has had less than desirable results, nothing else has taken place, save and except the loss of hundreds of jobs; the forced abandonment of the fields by scores of cane farmers; and the pauperization of the West Bank of Demerara.

Not too long after the Wales closure announcement, in early 2016, President Granger, on his now defunct Public Interest programme, had said that he didn’t believe that more estates would be closed. Within weeks of the President’s statement, GuySuCo informed GAWU and NAACIE that LBI Estate had to be closed to consolidate and make viable the operations of East Demerara Estate. As a result of that closure, scores of workers were shown the door. But then on the last day of 2016, the Government told the workers’ unions and the political opposition, that it had to close the very East Demerara Estate (Enmore) which, weeks prior it was said to be viable through the closure of LBI Estate. As history now records, the Government, at that time, indicated that it also wanted to close Rose Hall Estate and would divest itself of Skeldon Estate but wanted to hear from the unions and the opposition firstly before committing itself to a decision. Though our Union had doubts in the sincerity of the Government’s commitment, we nevertheless provided a submission which took account of empirical information from several studies and the CoI report and demonstrated that the industry could be saved and closure and divestment was not a necessary recourse. Our submission also warned about the social consequences that would befall thousands of Guyanese and scores of communities and we strongly endorsed the Opposition’s position that a credible socio-economic study should be pursued. The ‘Good Life’ Administra-tion, nevertheless, adamantly pressed ahead with nothing less than a disastrous policy to minimize the sugar industry. Onto this day it has never explained why it did not endorse the GAWU submissions. Our Union reiterates that the Administration would be hard pressed to provide a reasonable explanation for its rejection especially noting that GuySuCo itself is now advocating similar ventures to make it viable.

The closure policy as we all know saw thousands of workers being sent home in the middle of the Yuletide Season. Incidentally, at that very time, the President was half-way around the world petting elephants. Then after inflicting a deep wound of dismissal, salt was rubbed in when the Government blatantly ignored the provisions of the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act and proceeded to withhold half of the severance payments from the jobless, beleaguered sugar workers.

The Government unashamedly said it was unaware it had to pay the workers though it made the decision to put the several thousand workers on the breadline.

 That matter is now before the Courts and the public is well aware of the gimmickry that is being engaged in by the lawyers representing GuySuCo.

Then at the end of 2017,

unbeknownst to the public, the Administration substantially stripped  GuySuCo of its assets relating to the closed estates and transferred them without liability to NICIL. Also, the shares of the Corporation were also transferred to NICIL. Around the same time, the Government then announced it had decided to divest the estates identified for closure. Interestingly, the Administration has never shared what influenced the change of course; though we suspect the workers’ strong actions and the criticisms from many organisations and individuals must have been an influencing factor. It is interesting too that the Administration subsequently announced it had received over seventy expressions of interest for estates that were previously deemed unviable and irretrievable.

Then with all the behind the scene manifestations, a new GuySuCo Board of Directors was apparently appointed by NICIL, the Corporation’s new shareholder. That Board, which was announced with several full-coloured newspaper advertisements, was quickly disowned by the Government. The Administration explained it hadn’t approved the new Board though the media subsequently published a Cabinet memo which confirmed that the Government had indeed approved a new Board. The Administration, caught with its pants down, reversed gear and said that the Clive Thomas-headed Board remained in charge. Well that Board’s life came to an end since April, this year and despite several repeated promises that a new Board would be soon appointed GuySuCo remains, at this point in time, without a Board. On this score, we saw the President saying that he is looking to have a competent Board appointed though we recognised no timeline was provided.

The clear confusion regarding sugar continued when we saw musical chairs being played by the Ministers of Agriculture and Finance, with both gentlemen denying they had Ministerial responsibility for the industry. Then suddenly and without any forewarning, the Agriculture Minister announced he was in charge of GuySuCo though no explanation, as far as we recall, was ever provided as to how the contradictions were resolved. Then the public was told that NICIL-SPU, on behalf of GuySuCo, had entered arrangements whereby it secured $30B in financing towards making the industry viable and sustainable. While GAWU welcomed the financing, we expressed, at the same time, our serious concern that no clear plan had been advanced to guide the expenditure of the large sum that is repayable with interest.

Then most recently, we saw Minister of State, Joseph Harmon saying that the Government was giving consideration to the sale of the three operable estates along with those which have been closed. The Minister’s announcement stands in stark contradiction to President Granger who is quoted in the Guyana Times report as saying “[w]e want to see the sugar industry survive… we feel… that the industry and the corporation can survive”.

Clearly and obviously, the Administration’s approach to sugar, like it has been to many national matters, has been far from clear. It seems to us that a shooting-from-the-hip approach has been adopted and there is no thought-out policy regarding the sugar industry. Such an approach can never be helpful and can never provide answers to the pressing questions that would arise. If this is what the President defines as clear then the Guyanese people should definitely shudder when the Administration says it’s not clear on a matter.

Yours faithfully,

Seepaul Narine

General Secretary

GAWU

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