Life for many laid off sugar workers has been a painful and difficult experience

Dear Editor,

The GAWU’s attention was drawn to the Director of the Department of Public Information (DPI), Mr Imran Khan’s commentary programme titled “The current political situation”. The programme, a fairly new production by the DPI, has, in our view, taken partisan positions, something the Government had bitterly complained about when in Opposition. It, undoubtedly, goes to show, in our view, that talk is really cheap.

In a most recent programme, the DPI Director addressed the issue of unemployment. In touching on the subject, Mr Khan referred to the sugar industry and said that the 7,000 sugar workers who were made jobless were put on the breadline because of the “…necessary and inevitable right sizing of the industry….”. While the DPI Director is entitled to his view, a right we uphold, at the same time, we cannot see eye-to-eye with him. The fact remains that the Administration’s hands were not tied, so to speak, regarding its approach to sugar. Mr Khan, would well know, that the Sugar CoI recommended an alternative path and one which would have protected rather than destroyed livelihoods and deepened misery and hardships in our country. Moreover, we are at a loss to understand how the closure of estates is deemed as right sizing when the Coalition Government has promoted the re-opening of the estates after a divestment process.

The DPI Director, next says that the sugar workers “…have all received severance payments to the tune of hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars…”. It appears that Mr Khan wants Guyanese to believe that the monies paid to sugar workers were some form of concession by the Government. However, as many already know the workers were entitled to those payments in keeping with the statute and the collective labour agreement. Also, the sums that the workers received were earned as a result of the many dedicated years of service to the sugar industry. On this matter, we should not forget that the Government openly flouted the laws and withheld the workers entitlements, an injustice that was righted following the intervention of the High Court.

Mr Khan next tells us that “…many of the workers have used their severance pay to start new businesses…”. This indeed may be a fact for some workers and the GAWU is heartened by such developments. But those developments should not be used to obscure the reality that for very many of the workers, they have been forced to stingily utilize their severance payments to meet the basic costs of life. The reality is that workers have not been able to secure gainful employment elsewhere and had to dip into their payments. The reality is that those monies received, for many, are exhausted or near the exhaustion point. The reality is that some workers and their families do not have adequate meals. The reality is that some workers have had to make the painful choice to remove their children from school.

The facts of life in the closed communities are far from the blissful picture Mr Khan, sordidly, tried to paint. A recent short film produced by Dr David Dabydeen has highlighted poignantly the real realities of life since closure. From that film, Gail Garnette, the wife of an ex-worker shared, that “…since the estate close we ain’t getting nothing…”.   We also hear from 13-year old, Devina Budwah who was forced to withdraw from school. Devina explained that sugar workers in the community would assist her to attend school, however, after they became jobless they could not have afforded to help her and she had no choice than to leave school. Gordon Thomas, an ex-Wales worker, pointed out that “…Wales is a ghost town actually…”. This is the reality for many of the villages linked to the now-closed estates. Several other media reports have confirmed the hardships the peoples of the closed estates face on a daily basis. The GAWU recalls that the February 07, 2019, Guyana Times reported that ex-Skeldon Estate workers are required to pay a fee, imposed by the state-owned NICIL, to traverse the cultivation to catch fish and pick wild vegetables to feed their families. A December 19, 2018 Inews report, quotes Mr Christopher Ram as saying “[t]he people need employment; they need support and it seems that they’re almost forgotten and its cynical, it’s callous and it’s cruel”. Mr Ram is reported to have said “…he saw persons fishing in nearby drains during one of his many visits and it was explained that this was for their sustenance”.  We recall too, the September 20, Stabroek News quoted one worker as saying “[m]e a go beg for security wuk to keep me children in school and me na get nothing, job nadeh”. Another ex-worker, Patrick Mahendrasingh saying “[t]his government want me to commit suicide or murder just to send me children them to school, days when me deh home me ah sit and cry to think that I can’t able take care of my children them…”. The September 30, Guyana Times also quoted ex-worker, Eon Collymore as saying “I does work all over. Sometimes I does be at the sawmill and sometimes by the koker with a man and help him to bring out wallaba pickets. Sometimes I gone and fetch up the coast but right now the paddy work get stiff because they bring in grain carts. Since the estate close down, sometimes you catch day work, sometimes you ain’t catch nothing”. That article also quoted Avinash Singh, who also was put on the breadline, saying “[w]ithout a job and without money and have a family to look after, certain times you does get frustrated and you could do anything to get money because you don’t want to wake up in the night and your kids tell you that they are hungry and you don’t have anything to give them”. Another, former worker Royston Garnett is reported by the October 27, Guyana Times International edition to say “[h]e remembers collecting his letter and the hot tears that started to roll down his cheeks making their way to his toes. His entire body was numb. He didn’t cry for himself, rather he cried for the hardships his children would have to face. Yes, he was pessimistic from the beginning, because he knew that there was only so much he could do for a number of reasons. Garnett now spends his days going around in search of employment, only to be told that there are not any jobs available for him owing to a number of factors, particularly his age as well as the fact that ‘business bad’”. Certainly, this reduces the credence of the Mr Khan’s assertion to zero. To claim otherwise, is to add insult to injury. So while Mr Khan chooses to “pontificate” from the cushy platform afforded to him by the DPI, the reality is that he is sadly off course when it comes to the facts to life now-a-days in the communities of the closed sugar estates. For the workers life since then has been a painful and difficult experience. They and their families have been forced to make choices they thought they would have never had to make. And worse yet, it appears, that they have been forgotten by those who put them in the sad circumstances they find themselves today.

Yours faithfully,

Seepaul Narine

General Secretary

GAWU

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