GAWU will stand resolutely to support the workers whenever their rights are being trampled upon

Dear Editor,

 

The Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) has taken note of a similar letters appearing in the May 21, 2017 Kaieteur News and on May 22  Stabroek News captioned “GAWU must show what “added value” it brings to the partnership with GuySuCo” and “GAWU’s priority seems not to be workers’ representation but to mobilize around another cause”, respectively, which was authored by the Corporation’s Senior Communication Officer, Ms Audreyanna Thomas. Our Union cannot fail to express our concern over the unusually strong language which was used by the GuySuCo Officer but we see the missive as another desperate attempt to cast aspersions on our Union for its principled stance in defending sugar workers, their families and the people and communities linked to those estates that will be adversely affected by the government’s recent disclosure on the future of the sugar industry.

 

The GuySuCo letter begins by calling attention to the large participation by Guyanese from all walks of life in a march on May 16, 2017 opposing plans by the Corporation and the Government to close Rose Hall Estate at year-end. While our Union is being branded as having “lost its way”, we rightfully contend that wouldn’t any right-thinking Union seek to protect the well-being of its members and their families when they are being pushed onto the breadline? It seems, from our point of view, that the large turnout in the march and the solidarity it received have bruised the egos of some ‘important’ people and the Corporation’s letter is by all means an attempt at a futile ‘defense’.

 

The sugar corporation then goes on to scapegoat GAWU and the sugar workers for the Corporation’s current sad state-of-affairs but we hasten to ask how it is that production this year is expected to reach only 198,000 tonnes despite some $32B being invested by the state into the industry since 2015? The workers and the Union are not involved in the day-to-day decision making which is said now-a-days to be concentrated at the very top. Certainly, the workers and GAWU cannot and should not be blamed for the obvious shortcomings which have been glaringly aggravated in recent times.

 

GuySuCo in seeking to defend its indefensible positions has drawn attention to the number of strikes between 2001 and 2016. Our Union reiterates that the bulk of the strikes are related to price disputes which are legitimized in the Recognition and the Avoidance and Settlement of Disputes Agreement and concerns additional payment to undertake tasks in weedy and grassy fields. Such disputes will arise naturally and calls attention to the Corporation’s inability to cultivate sufficient quantities of canes. This is aptly borne out in the tonnes of cane per hectare (TcH) statistics. GuySuCo, earlier this year, advised the Parliamentary Economic Services Committee that last year its TcH was around 56, this is far from an acceptable TcH of between 75 and 85. In the absence of canes, there will be a proliferation of vines and weeds in the cane fields and thus make workers tasks even more difficult and time consuming and thus resulting in demands for extra payments.

 

Interestingly, the corporation’s missive states that “GuySuCo did not arrive at this deteriorated state overnight, this is the result of years of decline in several aspects of the business to which GAWU has and still is directly contributing.” In using the corporation’s strike figures for the period 2001-2016, the Union wishes to state that the second lowest number of mandays lost through strikes in the said period was recorded in 2013 (38,121), but the second lowest production since 1990 (186,000) was recorded by the Company in 2013. So in what way did GAWU directly contributed to such meagre production?

 

Our Union requests for the public edification a breakdown of the number of strikes by number and percentage to show the strikes and mandays that were lost under the category “condition of work” for the period 2001-2016. This will illustrate the magnitude of strikes associated with the sub-optimal condition of the cane fields.

 

From the Corporation’s strike data, we find it interesting too that in 2016 while production was the lowest since 1990, the number of man days lost as a result of strikes was 66 per cent lower than the peak in 2009. We ask: doesn’t the Corporation find it perplexing that in 2016 it had the third least number of strike days in sixteen (16) years yet production sunk to a lowest in twenty-six (26) years? The strike argument seems less and less convincing. Indeed it confirms the adage that the devil is in the details.

 

We agree that sugar production and more so maximum production and revenue must always be the Corporation’s intention. But, at the same time, the Corporation cannot fail to recognize the role of its workforce in achieving such feats. The haughty and arrogant approach by the Corporation hierarchy, therefore, cannot be helpful in this regard.

 

GuySuCo also refers to the turnout of planters and cane cutters in 2016. But this is telling only half of the story. What the Corporation conveniently fails to mention is that mechanization in both cane harvesting and cane planting are assisting in improving productivity and reducing costs. For example, cane cutters who cut canes which are mechanically loaded tend to cut twice as much as compared to when they are required to cut and load their canes. Of course such a situation is also premised on a ready supply of canes. Many times this, however, is often not the case. In such situations, workers must be engaged, sometimes, in drawn out negotiations to secure additional payments to harvest canes  in fields infested by grass, weeds and vines which only serve to frustrate workers, and deter their productivity.

 

The workers’ turnout also cannot be disconnected to the denial of pay rises in 2015 and 2016; the denial of Annual Production Incentive in 2016 as well as the arbitrary change, in several instances, to long standing work practices. We ask again doesn’t the Corporation find it strange that the turnout is what it is when employment opportunities diminish by the day. Again, we urge the Corporation to consult the textbooks on labour supply theory which advises what to expect when wage rates are stifled.

 

It is a known fact that the majority of sugar workers are far from being fully employed throughout the year. GuySuCo may wish to publish the statistic of the number of days per year an average worker is offered work at their regular pay level, and the statistic should differentiate the seasons of, in and out-of-crop. The statistic should clearly show whether GuySuCo is offering work that could adequately sustain an employee’s financial and economic needs. It should be pointed out that contractually, workers are required to work 80 per cent of the work days available to them to work to qualify for certain benefits and continuous employment, and they generally have always qualified. So, let’s see how many days per year has GuySuCo been offering work to the majority of workers per year, and since they are very good at providing statistic, this request should be quite easy.

 

Ms Thomas also speaks to the refusal by cane planters of Enmore/LBI to take up cane cutting tasks. We urge the Corporation’s Officer to consult her superiors on this matter. She would learn that there are certain jobs that planters would undertake whenever they are not required to plant canes. Cane cutting is not one of those tasks. The Corporation’s Communication Officer would also be made aware that arising out of a meeting with the Corporation and the Union, GuySuCo undertook to provide the planters their usual non-planting tasks. That undertaking was, however, betrayed. On this score, would it be fair to ask Ms Thomas and her colleagues at the GuySuCo Head Office as employees of the Corporation to undertake cane cutting tasks at Enmore/LBI or any other estate. Certainly, this would be outside of their competence and abilities and they would, under any circumstance, bluntly refuse such instruction. We remind GuySuCo what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

 

Our Union is also criticized by GuySuCo for advising the Wales workers – cane cutters and cane transport operators – of their rights as outlined by the Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act (TESPA). You should know Ms Thomas that our Union is obligated legally and morally to advice workers of their rights. Moreover, how could our Union knowingly set a precedent which runs contrary to the laws of the land? That would be foolhardy on the Union’s part. Moreover, while GuySuCo talks about the seeming desperate need by Uitvlugt for the Wales workers, we ask that if this was indeed the case how is it that Uitvlugt’s workforce was able to harvest all of that estate’s canes, without any assistance from Wales, and then went on to assist at Enmore/LBI?

 

We are supportive of the Corporation’s intention to have Uitvlugt producing 40,000 tonnes sugar. Our Union does not want to see advanced any further thought of additional estate closures though the Corporation’s language can be considered as threatening. At the same time, we ask why similar approaches can’t be taken with other estates towards improving production and productivity.

 

Our Union as we have said umpteen times is committed to seeing the sugar industry succeed and overcoming its difficulties and challenges. We have publicly shared our thoughts on how such feats could be reached. The GAWU also has grave reservations about GuySuCo thoughts on sugar’s future as enunciated in the recently released ‘State Paper’. We strongly hold that it will do more harm than good. Those ideas, if implemented, will serve to destroy the well-being of thousands of poor, ordinary Guyanese and upset significantly the social fabric in many communities across the sugar belt. We ask how any organization can be supportive of such plans?

 

We see the Corporation’s missive as the beating of a worn out drum. The GAWU would not be daunted by the spurious attacks that are levelled on us. We will continue to hold steadfastly to those principles which have guided us since our inception and which have served us well during our existence and will not cower in the face of adversity and challenges which  is, essentially, an assault on thousands of workers in the sugar industry and which threaten their jobs and livelihoods and affects also our country’s economy. We shall forever stand resolutely to support the workers whenever their rights are being trampled upon, and in this sense GAWU finds that the Corporation is seemingly worried on this principled stance.

 

Yours faithfully,

 

Seepaul Narine

General Secretary

Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU)

 


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