Just over a month after a labour dispute erupted at the Russian-owned Bauxite Company of Guyana Inc (BCGI), the standoff has come to an end with the firm agreeing to reinstate 61 sacked workers and negotiate a new Collective Labour Agreement (CLA) with the workers’ union.
With the signing of an agreement between RUSAL-owned BCGI and the Guyana Bauxite and General Workers’ Union (GB&GWU) yesterday, full operations are expected to restart soon. In a statement, RUSAL said that the agreement states that the workers will remove all obstacles across the Berbice river so as to allow vessels to resume navigation up and down the waterway, they will return to work and BCGI will reemploy all 61 dismissed workers.
“The agreement further outlines that within fourteen days of the full resumption of work, the parties will commence negotiation of a new collective labour agreement. This will be referred to in case of any further disputes, which may occur in the future,” the statement said.
In a separate statement, the GB&GWU added that the Terms of Resumption (ToR), “includes reinstatement of all 61 dismissed workers and those laid off during the dispute; no victimisation or change of conditions for the reinstated workers; no compensation for time not worked during the dispute; return of the check-off system; and clearing of the Berbice River.”
It also echoed RUSAL’s statement that within 14 days of the full resumption of work, the parties will commence negotiation of a new CLA.
This will be seen as a major victory for the union as the company has persistently refused to recognise it and the last CLA, which was due to run for three years, was signed in 2008 and expired in 2011.
This was not lost on the GB&GWU as it pointed out that the workers’ struggle, which began on 22nd November 2009, has ended after approximately nine years, three months, and 28 days. It pointed out that the recent industrial conflict which began from February 15th, ended after one month and four days yesterday with the signing of the ToR.
The industrial action by the workers started on February 15th after the company unilaterally imposed a one per cent increase in wages. Workers also cited other unaddressed issues, including BCGI’s unwillingness to recognise the union as the workers’ bargaining agent. Following the firing of scores of striking colleagues, workers strung oil barrels and jars on wires across the Berbice River, blocking the passage of barges leaving and entering the mining site at Aroaima, Berbice River. Facing pressure, the government intervened and subsequently the union and the company began a bilateral engagement which led to yesterday’s agreement.
The GB&GWU’s statement yesterday said that both parties have further agreed to recognise the sovereignty, Constitution and Laws of Guyana and neither shall act in contravention thereof. They also pledged to uphold the spirit and goodwill to which the ToR was negotiated and signed, and will do nothing to circumvent same.
While the new CLA is being negotiated, the union said, “The parties agreed that in the pursuit of a new CLA and in the Avoidance and Settlement of Disputes, the procedure used for dealing with same in the old (former) CLA shall be utilised as an interim measure; and further agreed that all major issues which involve conditions of employment shall be addressed with a view to achieving resolution.”
Minister of Natural Resources Raphael Trotman yesterday expressed elation that the conflict was resolved and said it was demonstrative of what talks and compromise can result in. “I am happy that reason and compromise prevailed and that what appeared as an intractable and hopeless situation was resolved. It goes to show what is capable when we put our minds to it,” he said.
Meantime, giving a history of industrial action in the bauxite industry, the GB&GWU said that in the history of independent Guyana, this was the longest industrial conflict on record. It pointed out that it began under the Bharrat Jagdeo presidency. “Looking back this is a struggle that never should have been. It is a struggle that GB&GWU was bound to come out successful, regardless of (how) long it went, because the laws were on our side,” the union said.
“It is unfortunate, however, in spite of the Constitution and laws that protect workers, that successive PPP governments ignored the pleas and struggles of GB&GWU to hold BCGI accountable and to protect those who it was bound by Constitution to represent,” the statement said.
The union singled out for praise, the Ministry of Social Protection, particularly Minister Amna Ally, who it said, “brought seriousness and intolerance to the violation of the Laws of Guyana and Guyanese workers.”
The media, local and international, was also acknowledged and “the countless individuals on social media, the people of Guyana, who took on this fight personally. The workers and families of BCGI and the communities around.”
“Thank you for standing up for your rights and standing for justice. Thank you to the GTUC, FITUG, GPSU and trade unionists from near and far, including the international unions, that gave us support and encouraged us on to keep the fight. For those businesses affected by the blockage of the river and sacrificed silently as workers struggle, GB&GWU regrets the inconvenience caused but thank you for your forbearance during this period. Thanks to all those who contributed food stuff and other supplies to keep the workers and their families going. Thanks everyone for defending Guyana. In true trade union spirit, we are stronger together,” the statement added.
The union acknowledged that there are miles to go to ensure that what happened does not repeat itself.
Meanwhile, the GB&GWU said that as it analysed the circumstance of its struggles, it concluded that “whereas the Russian (principals) of BCGI erred, their behaviour and maltreatment of the workers could not have been possible had our fellow Guyanese not chosen to encourage and participate in the violation of our laws and workers’ rights.”
It was a direct criticism of former Chief Labour Officer Mohamed Akeel, who is employed by BCGI as its Labour Advisor. The union highlighted that Akeel has more than 25 years of service with the Labour Department.
“He knows better yet failed to adequately represent the Laws of Guyana protecting the rights of BCGI workers. This brings into question the quality/efficiency of his performance and whether he is best capable of serving the interest of BCGI and the union in upholding the signed agreement,” the statement said.
“The union declares today that it has no confidence in Mohamed Akeel. And for as long as he remains in the employ of BCGI, his attitude and behaviour toward workers will be placed under the microscope and exposed. We are convinced that his is the attitude that creates unnecessary conflict… Guyana can do better and must unite to safeguard our gains as a sovereign nation,” it said.
“GB&GWU commits to upholding its end of the agreement and will not shy away from holding BCGI accountable for same,” it added.