Sugar industry requires serious and concerted action by President

Dear Editor,

The GAWU has considered several media reports about His Excellency, President David Granger’s visit on June 07 to Albion Estate. The visit which was described by the June 09 Kaieteur News as a “surprise”, we noted, saw His Excellency saying quite a lot apart from the commitments he made. Notably, it was the first time that the President set foot on a sugar estate since he took office over four years ago. According to a statement of June 07, published on the Ministry of the Presidency’s website, President Granger is quoted to have said “I am here to find out what your problems are. I have come to fix things”. The rational mind would have thought that the President and his colleagues, who collectively occupy the decision-making chairs of the nation, would have been well aware of the industry’s problems and how to go about fixing them. It appears, if President Granger’s utterances are anything to go by, that this was not the case. It, undoubtedly, brings into question what factor/s influenced then the Administration’s policy toward the industry? The President went on to say that he wants the “…industry not just sustainable but profitable…” and that is must “thrive”. On the surface, it seems, the President is saying the right things but we hasten to wonder if the President and his Administration were so interested in the industry thriving, as he says, why were the worthwhile suggestions that were advanced by the Sugar Commission of Inquiry (CoI), among others, ignored apparently. Many suggestions, had they been implemented, would have helped to put the industry on firmer ground and well on the path to profitability.

President Granger also said he wants “…to guarantee employees’ livelihoods… to guarantee sugar’s position in the national economy… to safeguard the rural economy”. Again these are lofty sentiments. But they come after sugar workers remain the only group of employees covered by the State’s umbrella to have effectively had their wages stagnated at 2014 levels though we now live in 2019 when circumstances of life are vastly different. It came after 7,000 workers lost their jobs following their several expressions to draw attention to their plight. It came after the President’s men and women ignored the credible suggestions of the unions and the political opposition, to conduct a socio-economic impact assessment regarding its sugar policy. It came, too, after the IMF advised the Government to put in place adequate safety nets for displaced workers. It came after the aspirations of thousands have been shattered. It came after entire communities have been thrown into disarray. And, it came after millions of dollars in foreign currency receipts have been effectively lost.

We also saw the President reportedly saying, his Government “…since 2015 has been doing everything humanly possible to ensure the industry thrives”. Can we really take this statement at face value? We ask:- how can we? We recollect that the Administration recruited a certain ‘expert’ who had a long-held position to significantly reduce the scope of the industry. Or, how can we not remember that there was a sustained attack to reduce workers longstanding and hard-won benefits. Or, what about the billions channeled to the industry but we see sliding production? Certainly, if the President was serious, in our view, much of what has played out in the industry, during his time at the helm, ought not to have occurred in the first place.

His Excellency is also quoted to say “[w]e are in the business of sugar and we will produce sugar. We will not produce retrenched workers…”. Again, we see the boisterous pronouncements by the President. While we are in the business of sugar, we cannot ignore that the President’s Government closed the Enmore Packaging Plant which output attracted the highest prices according to the Sugar CoI. Or that the Skeldon Co-Generation plant, which raked in nearly $10B in revenues in 2016, is also suffering now-a-days from a lack of bio-mass arising from the Skeldon estate’s closure. Or that the thousands retrenched by the Administration’s policy had their severance entitlements unduly and illegally withheld. Even, at this time, there is a certain segment of the displaced workers who, notwithstanding a Court Order, are having an aspect of their severance payments withheld.

The President was also quoted by the statement to have said “…that Government is going to put the relationship between NICIL and the Corporation on a firm footing”. Again, the obvious question that pops up is why did the President allow the relations between the two bodies to descend to the acrimonious expressions that have played out in the full view of the public. Why wasn’t the discord arrested earlier rather than be allowed to fester? We nevertheless are hopeful that, indeed, the President, late than never, could bring the bodies to see eye-to-eye.

Our Union was perplexed too when we saw President Granger being quoted as saying he “…met with the sugar unions on December 31, 2016 and February 3, 2017 and, again, with the unions on January 19, 2018 because I am interested in working out with them how this industry will survive… I want them to understand our plans for the industry”. Our Union did meet representatives of the Government, not the President, on December 31, 2016 and February 03 and 17, 2017 regarding what was said to us was a ‘consultative’ exercise regarding the plans to divest Skeldon Estate and close Rose Hall and Enmore Estates. While we harboured fears about the genuineness of those engagements, our Union approached it with an open mind but, it appeared, that the proverbial door was already shut on the other side. Nevertheless, the GAWU as well as the NAACIE did engage President Granger and leading members of his Administration, for the first and only time, on January 19, last year. A statement, by the Department of Public Information, about the engagement quoted His Excellency as saying “[t]he Government and the Unions should engage until the issue is resolved”. Though the GAWU engaged in good faith and put several suggestions to the Government at the meeting, we have not since heard from the President or his Administration about further engagements. While the President’s interest in securing the remaining state-owned sugar estates is a welcome sign, it is not a time for nice speeches, good words and photo opportunities. Whether the President’s apparent new-found interest is connected to other national happenings is left to be seen. However, we require serious and concerted action. There must be, in our view, collective discussions and the sharing of ideas and thoughts. The workers, an important segment in the industry’s turnaround, success and sustainability, can no longer be alienated or treated with scorn or derision, but they must be included and treated with respect. We will look in the coming times to see if the President’s utterances are reflected in actions and deeds. 

Yours faithfully,

Seepaul Narine

General Secretary

GAWU

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