The political campaign for elections has evidently started. The parties, with the exception of the partners in A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), have begun holding fora, rolling out messages and promises. The citizens/workers are taking note, and not without guarded skepticism that having been down this road before where promises were made and not delivered, this time around it would be no different. It cannot be ignored there exists the feeling in society that the welfare of workers/the masses get little or no attention and voting has become meaningless. The fight for the right to vote (universal adult suffrage) began with the trade union, and like with any other right trade unionists want it to be protected and utilised.
The AFC coming out of its Executive Committee meeting on Saturday, having stated its political positions, has notably agreed that the revenue from oil and gas be used for free education from nursery to university as well as housing for citizens. The re-examination of the deprival of these rights are noted.
In 1926 when the Caribbean Labour Leaders met in British Guiana and developed a Labour’s Agenda, on this was placed universal public education and healthcare, and workers having the opportunity to own their own homes, among other prescriptions considered integral to improving their standard of living and working conditions. These remain abiding principles of the trade union community.
In the Guyana Constitution, Article 27 ‘Right to education,’ clause (1) expressly states, “Every citizen has the right to free education from nursery to university as well as at non-formal places where opportunities are provided for education and training.” Where this service is deemed a “right,” students are being expected to pay for their university education which constitutes a transgressing of their right and violating of the extant article. The University of Guyana is a state-owned entity and students can access loans to pay for their tuition through the Ministry of Finance. The Ministry previously threatened to prevent those with outstanding loans from leaving the country. Article 26, ‘Right to housing’ states, “That every citizen has the right to proper housing accommodation.” This ranges from rental to ownership, accompanied by the attendant services such as efficient waste management (sewage), drainage, access (roadways), utilities (water, electricity) and infrastructures befitting modernity.
Both the AFC and PPP/C have expressed interest in housing. While the AFC has not made public any specific plan, the PPP presidential candidate, Irfaan Ali, at its rally two Sundays ago reportedly said it will deliver 50,000 house lots. Where this convergence of interest exists, it would help if the parties could agree to expanding the communities project presently underway through mechanisms that will ensure equity across the needed demographic and in the ten administrative regions.
Society is ever reminded by the politicians of the heavy reliance being paid to expected revenue from oil and gas to propel the economy. In fact, this has become a major campaign rallying cry. When this revenue will directly impact citizens’ lives is still being debated. Leader of the Opposition Bharrat Jagdeo is on record saying, “that it could take as much as five years before Guyana starts to see major earnings when oil production starts in 2020” (Kaieteur News 17th August 2018). Going by his projection it means until 2025. The coalition government has reportedly projected that from day one approximately US$300 million will be garnered per year, as others have expressed different estimates. What society needs is clarity as to how much and when revenue will flow, and if we are to wait for same until 2025 it suggests projects being proposed to be realised from the revenue stream will not come on board until six years from now.
Even as there exists heavy reliance on oil to fund development projects and restore a right (which shouldn’t be), Guyanese are being forewarned by regional and international persons of repute to rethink such a position. An instructive preemptive commitment to avert abuse of this resource is Ali’s promise that “laws would be passed to jail persons who do not declare earnings from the oil sector.” It would be good for the PPP to collaborate with the APNU+AFC and the legal draftspersons in examining the present tax laws and where necessary amend same or create legislation, for there is unanimity in society that this revenue must be properly accounted for.
Labour has an abiding interest in full employment. Note is taken of Ali’s promise to create 50,000 new jobs in the first five years, should he win the presidency, from oil and gas revenue. He went on to say a PPP government will re-open the estates closed by the Coalition Government but was silent on what will happen to those estates closed by the PPP government. Society needs to know how these new jobs and reopening of estates will be made possible or such promises will be seen as campaign gimmicks.
The sugar workers from all the closed estates, along with their families and communities, remain affected. As the Special Purpose Unit (SPU) stated receipt of expressions of interest for the recently closed estates, Jagdeo last week said a PPP government will not honour same. What isn’t known is where will the money come from to fund the re-opening of estates and sustaining the livelihood of the affected workers, in the absence of a clear plan to return them to economic viability.
This country doesn’t provide unemployment benefit and laid off workers cannot expect any financial relief, notwithstanding promises. It does not mean unemployment benefits cannot be looked at but it requires a guaranteed source of funding and strong regulations to prevent abuse and safeguard the Fund. A percentage of oil revenue could be channelled to the National Insurance Scheme (NIS), that already has within its remit provision for unemployment, to pay those who have been laid off from their jobs.
The intent of what is being proposed is good for the society. Conversations of such nature need to be had, including with non-political stakeholders as required by the Constitution (Articles 13, 23, 38, 149C), as we seek to navigate the proper exploitation and management of the nation’s resources in moving forward. Where all the political parties have expressed interest in pursuing a politics of inclusion, now is the time to start.
As I have said elsewhere, there is no need to be elected to Government to honour or demand what the Constitution mandates of inclusionary democracy. There is no need to make a constitutional requirement a promise or await elections to make the promise a reality. Procrastinating on this fundamental tenet of our system of governance is not only a violation, but most importantly, depriving the people of what is rightly theirs, i.e.- a seat at the table to determine how our resources could best be exploited with our interest as primary.