RUSAL and Guyana: Something has to give

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The visible manifestations of the ensuing ruckus between the Russian managers running the show at the operations of the Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc. (BCGI) and the union representing the workers would appear to suggest that what we are witnessing is a prolonged industrial relations tussle between the mostly RUSAL-owned operations and the union. In fact, reports in sections of the media earlier this week even suggested that the union representing the workers – the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers’ Union (GB&GWU) – and the Russian managers at BCGI had met and had agreed to talks to settle “the dispute,” that notwithstanding the fact that there is an absence of clarity as to the precise nature of the ‘dispute.’

On the basis of the evidence that has unmistakably manifested itself over the years, what is a good deal clearer is that the ‘dispute’ is a much broader issue that has to do with the mores and management style of the world’s alumina powerhouse, the modus operandi of the Russian managers in Guyana being really no different to that which applies to its various other poor-country bauxite mining outposts in Africa, notably Guinea, believed to possess the greatest volumes of bauxite reserves anywhere.

Incidentally, control of the Alumina Company of Guinea was taken over by RUSAL IN 2002. What is now the Friguia bauxite-alumina complex was fully privatised in 2006 and remains under RUSAL’s control. Those operations have an estimated annual production capacity in excess of 600,000 tonnes of alumina and 2.1 million tonnes of bauxite. It is a facility that significantly dwarfs our own BCGI complex though the problems there are, in large measure, are quite similar. In fact, the operations at Friguia have been decidedly unstable over the past six to seven years on account of various socio-political problems in the region including issues between the RUSAL management and the workers, RUSAL’s problems and the government of Guinea itself.

The reality of the nature of the relationship between companies like RUSAL and countries like Guinea and Guyana is simple. Whatever the contents of the contracts signed (between RUSAL and countries like Guinea and Guyana) and the stated obligations embedded in those contracts, the unstated ‘bottom line’ is always quite different. RUSAL’s presence in both Guinea and Guyana has to do with its interest in feeding its alumina plants, a priori. The host countries are concerned with, above everything else, the returns that they receive from RUSAL’s operations whether those be in terms of finances or job creation. In the Guyana instance it is job-creation that is the priority concern.

The Russians have, from the inception, handled its Guyana ‘assignment’ from a they-need-us-more-than-we-need-them perspective, through which lenses they see very little reason to show any great mindfulness of either the laws of Guyana or the sensitivities of the government. Insofar as trade union representation for the workers is concerned the situation is even worse. That is why the Russians contemptuously dismissed the GB&GWU from its presence in the first place and why, persistently and over a protracted period of time, it has given the Government of Guyana short shrift.

 Whichever political administration has been in place since 2004, one can hardly deny the attitude of the Russians which ranges, at one time or another, from patronage to contempt. What, however, has been even more notable has been the failure of government to proffer an appropriate response, a circumstance that has allowed the Russians incremental elbow room to turn the screws even tighter. What is also by no means insignificant has been the continued failure of the Russians in Moscow to rein in their outpost managers in Guyana. This frankly, would appear to be a policy on the part of the RUSAL high command.

On the basis of precedent, there can hardly be any great optimism that the agreement on the part of the Russian managers at BCGI to meet with the union will bear meaningful fruit, the reality being that for RUSAL, subjecting its operations in Guyana to any form or measure of union-driven control could undermine its command and control operating culture. It is the government that will have to enforce the law even though precedent suggests that there is a concern by the authorities that such a confrontation may not work to its advantage. That is why, even at this juncture, there is a clear reluctance on the part of the Ministry of Social Protection – the Labour Department, that is – to roll up its sleeves for a confrontation.

Something has to give here.     

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