The Bauxite Company of Guyana Incorporated (BCGI), which is controlled by Russian Aluminium (RUSAL), today fired 61 striking workers and its management refused to attend a scheduled conciliation meeting at the Department of Labour.
It was after the meeting that Sheldon Thomas, a representative of the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers’ Union (GB&GWU) revealed that the workers were dismissed.
Thomas explained that a notice was issued to the workers identifying the 61 workers who were dismissed with immediate effect. He also said over 100 workers are on strike.
The notice, which was seen by Stabroek News, stated, “This notice is to advise that the undermentioned persons have been terminated from the company’s employment effective the 18th January, 2019.” The notice, signed by Personnel Manager Mikhail Krupenin, did not explain why the workers were dismissed.
“These people are disrespectful. They treat you anyhow, they speak to you anyhow and they don’t want to recognise the union. This whole thing started with the 1% they gave on Friday and we said we are not standing for less than 20%. It’s a trend that keeps passing down and why is there not enough pressure being applied? Why isn’t the ministry going to the laws,” Thomas questioned.
A conciliation meeting was slated for today at the Department of Labour of the Ministry of Social Protection and was supposed to be attended by the representatives of the GB&GWU and representatives from the company.
However, according to GB&GWU General Secretary Lincoln Lewis, he received a call before the meeting and was told that the company would not be attending the meeting if he was present. Lewis attended the meeting along with his team and had a discussion with a team from the Department of Labour, including Chief Labour Officer Charles Ogle.
Lewis subsequently said the issue of the meagre increase in wages was “the straw that broke the camel’s back” after the continued mistreatment of workers. He pointed out that the union and the company have had unresolved issues dating back to 2009 and over the last decade the company has been adamant about not negotiating and recognising the duly-elected union.
“The issue is not the 1%… What the issue is is the company’s resistance to recognise and negotiate with the legally-elected union. They refused to do so and what they keep doing over the years is dismiss people, suspend people. They have cut out, for instance, holiday with pay,” he said, while pointing out that vacation benefit has also been cut.
Lewis said the company has no right to change the conditions of employment arbitrarily and emphasised that it has to be agreed through collective bargaining. He added that the union has been writing to the company since 2016 but is still yet to have any fruitful conversations with management.
When questioned about a legal recourse, Lewis said the strike action that the workers have engaged in is a legal action and added that the Labour Act provides for compulsory arbitration, which can be ordered by the subject minister.
Given the issues with the company’s treatment of workers over the past decade, Lewis asserted that the neglect by politicians, who buy into the notion that the private sector is the engine of growth and “you shouldn’t question what the private sector does,” has created the problem.
“The question here is… are you prepared to sacrifice the fundamental rights and freedom that our forbearers have fought for and we have gained for a company to remain here? The laws are the laws and take precedence over any other thing; the question of economics come after,” he said, while addressing the possibility of the company’s shutting down affecting the country’s economy.
In terms of the company’s absence at today’s planned meeting, Lewis said that no reason was given for the company’s refusal to meet with him present. “If it was Burnham or Jagan… they would not have been doing the things they are doing here now. This is time for political actions. This is time for the President to call the head of RUSAL and put them to sit down,” he said, before adding that he would direct workers not move from their work site.
Stabroek News was also told that the company’s refusal to engage with Lewis stems from its belief that he once used racial slurs.
“I said to them very early, very early… I made the point that we have fought slavery and indentureship and we will not entertain it here. They are different from us physically, so what is the problem about? It is a fact that they are different to us in feature, in culture and experiences… Why should I apologise for the truth? I don’t have a problem with it,” he explained.
However, he pointed out that he is open to having discussions separately through the Department of Labour.
“I understand conciliation, as I said to them, and I don’t have to be at the same place, at the same time with the employers. This is conciliating. The conciliator listens to the union and we articulate our position and he takes it to them and he talks with them and he listens to them and comes back to us,” he said, while emphasising that the management was wrong to refuse an invitation by the Department of Labour.
Ogle subsequently said the Department would meet with the company tomorrow morning.
Given the company’s absence today, he was asked how it would ensure that the company would make an appearance. However, all he said the Department will meet with the company and that “ifs and buts” should not be considered. “This story has two sides. They will have to turn up because we are summoning them but we will ensure they turn up. We are going to get them to turn up,” Ogle said.
Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection Keith Scott was also questioned several times on the developments between the company, union and Department but refused to give any comment today.
According to workers, the Russian-owned company has doubled its daily production within the last few months. He noted that while management has indicated that the company is not able to pay hefty wage increases, it recently invested in 13 Caterpillar 777 trucks, which are very expensive. It was further explained that workers are not being paid their overtime allowances and are only given $300 for meal allowances if they work through their breaks.