The plight of the former sugar workers

With the passing on Friday of social justice activist Andaiye, this is an appropriate point to reflect on the sage words she co-authored with Eusi Kwayana and Moses Bhagwan in the Stabroek News’ In the Diaspora column of January 8, 2018 on the APNU+AFC government’s stewardship and the plight of the laid-off sugar workers.

They wrote: “But recently, we were shocked beyond belief when severance notices were handed out to sugar workers at the start of the Christmas season, without a plan regarding the future of the workers, their families, their communities, and the wider economy of Guyana.

“This disastrous decision cannot be explained away with reference to inexperience. It is callous, foolish, ill-advised and economically unfeasible. The economy of Guyana has revolved around sugar since 1815, when the decision was taken to create a one crop economy. In that vein, the diversity that enslaved Africans had introduced through the cultivation of provision grounds came under attack. Some normalcy was restored to the people’s economy through valiant struggles in the 1840s after the abolition of slavery when the village movement was formed. Over the long and protracted history of the second half of the 19th century, these villages supported the everyday existence of the mainly East Indian indentured sugar working communities. The wages from sugar workers resident in Indian and African villages was important to the survival of all the villages. The structure of economic and social relations in rural coastal Guyana is related to the integration of these two communities. For two hundred years, the wages paid to Indian and African workers on the sugar estates have helped in no small manner to sustain and bring vibrancy to every other industry and enterprise in Guyana, including the ice seller, the flutie producer, the hairdresser, the farmer, the haberdasher, the mechanic, the fisherman. This decision to shut down sugar is being taken as if it does not strike at the heart of the household and community economies of both those directly engaged in sugar production and those for whom there are ripple effects. This decision will affect every political constituency in the country. It will even affect the viability of the National Insurance Scheme (NIS).

“The decision to hand out severance letters disrupts the micro economy of the working people, and is already affecting major sections of the country. We believe that Cabinet is duty bound to explain in plain language when the decision to issue severance letters was taken, when the decision to implement the decision to hand out severance letters by GuySuCo became government policy, what were the consultations and deliberations and with whom, what alternatives were discussed, why Cabinet did not consider a more reasonable phased approach, why for instance proposals from citizens’ groups such as the National Farmers Organization for managed diversification were not given any attention and due consideration. Cabinet should also tell the public how much of the yearly subsidy was used to pay super salaries of GuySuCo officials”.

Needless to say, many of the questions posed by the trio in this column remain unanswered and the government continues to flounder hopelessly in its mandate to breathe life and hope into the communities which came under the cosh when four estates: Wales, Rose Hall, East Demerara and Skeldon were closed.  Evidence of this was delivered on Friday via the Director-General in the Ministry of the Presidency, Joseph Harmon. He was unable to provide any useful information on the process for the privatisation of the estates save for a declaration that prospective investors who had “lost interest” in the exercise would be contacted again.

After heady statements by government officials in November, 2017 about extensive interest in the shuttered estates and that 70 expressions of such had been made by companies including Pepsi, this boiled down to five companies presenting formal expressions of interest in November 2018. Only three of the companies were evaluated as two failed to meet all of the requirements and it now seems that some or all had lost interest. Further exemplifying the confused state that the government was in, it restarted several of the shuttered estates to give investors a look at what a going concern was and apparently to produce some molasses which did not meet the grade.

The government’s task was never going to be an easy one. Given the state of the global sugar industry and the world market price for the sweetener, it was hardly likely that investors would be beating down doors to buy up aging estates with old factories and known performance issues. There were also major political issues which the government apparently refused to recognize. In the aftermath of the December 21, 2018 motion of no confidence against the government and the turmoil generated,  investors were hardly likely to  negotiate any major deals that would necessitate long-term investments.

Thousands of laid-off sugar workers continue to struggle as a result of the government’s failure to deliver tangible alternatives. The former sugar workers – at Wales for example – have been cruelly regaled with promises which never materialised.  Previous failed efforts at crop diversification were dusted off after the closure of the estate and numerous promises made to re-employ workers. Those initiatives have predictably come to naught. Intimations that lands from the estate would be given to workers also produced no result though as is usually the case in industry upheavals of this type, prime lands will be sold off and no doubt to big businesses and speculators without any returns to the laid-off workers.

Given its  failure thus far to provide an alternative to the thousands of displaced workers and their dependents, the government must embark on a structured programme to provide help to them.

It must map the fate of all of the workers made redundant and provide assistance which would take care of basic needs and enable training for re-employment. In the early days of the redundancies at the estates, there had some been some attempts at re-training but nothing that was structured or sustained. With the help of the sugar unions, the government should be able to establish how many of the former workers have found new jobs, how many have embarked on their own ventures with their severance pay and  how many have not and are now unable to even afford sending their children to school. Having made the difficult decision to rationalise the sugar industry, the government must not neglect its obligation to help to keep these former workers, their families and communities above the poverty line.

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