Facing calls to take a stand and represent workers following the firing of 60 Bauxite Company of Guyana Incorporated (BCGI) workers for striking, a team of ministers met with company executives yesterday and Minister of State Joseph Harmon emphasised that the workers must be respected and the country’s labour laws upheld.
The meeting aimed to identify ways in which the ongoing industrial strike taken by workers and their subsequent dismissal can be resolved amicably, a statement from the Ministry of the Presidency said. Following a strike last week, some 60 workers were fired from the Kwakwani mining operation of the BCGI, a Russian Aluminium (RUSAL) subsidiary, on Monday and the government has been facing increasing calls to intervene and take action.
Yesterday’s meeting included Harmon, Minister of Social Protection Amna Ally, Minister of Natural Resources Raphael Trotman and Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection with responsibility for Labour Keith Scott, who met with RUSAL’s representative in Guyana Vladimir Permyakov and Director of Alumina and Bauxite Department at RUSAL, Sergey Kostyuk.
The statement said that Harmon made it clear that the Guyanese workers must be treated in a respectful manner, and at all times the country’s labour laws must be upheld. He said that the government views the ongoing dispute as serious and it was among priority matters on the agenda at the Ministerial Plenary.
“There are two objectives to this: the Guyanese workers must be treated in a respectful and fair manner at all times… their rights must be respected and at the same time, the company must function and ensure it makes profits for its shareholders. It is a question of finding common ground and ensure that our workers’ rights are respected. We must find common ground to move forward. The issues must be dealt with in a clear way,” the statement quoted Harmon as saying.
Following the meeting, Ally said that government has laid out its contentions while the company was also given the opportunity to do so. The dismissed workers will also be given a chance to have their side heard, she added. She said that Scott will be meeting with the workers at Aroaima to have discussions with them today.
“What came out of (yesterday’s) meeting is that after we have laid (out) some of the issues, the executive will be taking this matter to their principals, have a discussion and then get back to us. Meanwhile we are continuing our engagements on the ground with the workers. It is Government’s intention to have this matter resolved amicably,” the statement quoted Ally as saying.
Additionally, the government will be providing support to the 60 dismissed workers as it relates to the provision of basic amenities.
Yesterday’s meeting followed one on Tuesday between the Department of Labour and two RUSAL representatives, including Permyakov. Following that meeting, Chief Labour Officer Charles Ogle said that they are awaiting the response of RUSAL’s management on two proposals that were presented.
Permyakov has said that the services of the 60 workers were terminated as a result of their decision to stay away from work for five days. He would not make clear whether the workers would be rehired. He had explained that since heavy-duty equipment is being used, if one shift does not complete its work, the whole production or mining process can become compromised and result in dangerous situations.
He had said that stipulations in the workers’ contracts do not allow them to stay away from work during certain periods of time.
On Wednesday, the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers Union (GB&GWU) General Secretary Lincoln Lewis told Stabroek News that a contract with those stipulations would be in contravention of the Constitution, which gives workers the freedom to strike.
“The contract that they refer to, I’ve never seen it. The Ministry will have to say what they will do because it’s in conflict with the Constitution and that is the position of the union,” he said.
Following media reports of Permyakov’s comments, the GB&GWU said in a statement that the management’s claim that workers can be terminated because they signed a contract that they be will dismissed if they refuse to work “is blatant nonsense!”
“Article 147 (2) of the Guyana Constitution protects the right to strike. Anything outside of the Constitution that infringes the rights of the employee is a violation. The fact BCGI management can go to the ministerial body with such utter nonsense demonstrates the height of RUSAL’s eye-pass,” the union observed.
Lewis told Stabroek News that the workers are still adamant about their position and are currently frustrated that their rights and the Constitution are being violated. The workers began striking after the imposition of a 1 per cent increase in wages, which they had claimed was unfair. However, Permyakov has said that over the last five years, there has been a 15 per cent increase in wages and salaries, which no one mentions.
“They are not getting anywhere, so they are protesting and I am not sure how long because we can’t determine that until we have a resolution,” Lewis said.
The union leader explained that the Labour Department has communicated the union’s position to the company and their position is that the workers should be reinstated and the company should recognise the GB&GWU as the workers’ union to conduct all further negotiations and discussions.
“They [workers] just have to hold the faith and they have to keep fighting. They are not moving until we get a resolution,” he added.
When questioned on whether he is satisfied with the pace at which the Ministry is facilitating the discussions, Lewis said that the current pace is consistent with conciliation talks.
“The question of moving faster is that they can’t move it faster. They are facilitating the process of getting the resolution so I will never be satisfied. My position is that I can’t be satisfied with a company holding out on violating laws and transgression against these Guyanese workers,” he added.
The Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) in a statement on Wednesday said it is seeking immediate action in response to the arbitrary and illegal dismissal of the workers. The umbrella union body urged robust and unambiguous public statements from both the Government of Guyana and the Opposition PPP/C specifically condemning the dismissal of the striking workers and calling on the management of BCGI to respect the laws of Guyana with regard to trade union membership and the rights and entitlements appended thereto.
It said that this should be followed by a meeting between the government and the management of BCGI to follow through on details surrounding their public call and the re-establishment of clear guidelines and understanding of the company’s need for compliance with all of the country’s industrial laws and practices if they are to enjoy good relations in Guyana.
It added that the details should include the unconditional reinstatement of the dismissed workers; respecting the workers’ recognised union of choice, following the instructions issued by the Department of Labour, respect for the workers’ right to strike and the need to sit at the table to negotiate with the union as it relates to terms of resumption that must include no break in service, penalties or recriminations.
Lastly, the GTUC said that there should be an immediate dispatch to the company notifying them of an impending visit to the work site by a delegation comprising of officials of the Ministry of Social Protection, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the union to engage the management and workers, inclusive of the dismissed ones, in a meeting with a view to their reinstatement and to the formal recognition of the GB&GWU as the workers’ union.
“It is the view of the GTUC that while the role of RUSAL as an investor in the country’s bauxite industry warrants full recognition, the status of an investor does not entitle the company to ride roughshod over the laws of Guyana and the rights of the Guyanese people. The Russian managers at BCGI have repeatedly overstepped their mark and a juncture has been reached where a robust collective response from the relevant institutions and the people of Guyana is warranted,” the statement added.