Confusion surrounds Govt meet with sugar workers

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-Wales Estate workers walkout, protest for severance

-Gov’t declares no ‘fiscal space’ for payments during meeting but says final severance pay issued in released statement after

A community-level meeting held on Friday at the Wales Community Centre between residents of Wales, West Bank Demerara and Agriculture Minister Noel Holder, Minister of State Joseph Harmon, Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan, and Public Telecommunications Minister Cathy Hughes erupted in chaos when cane harvesters stormed out after being told by the panel that Government has no money to pay the severance to which they are entitled.

Residents and sugar workers of the Wales estate, gathered to meet with Ministers of the Government

Bluntly asked to explain why cane cutters were not being paid their severance packages, Ramjattan explained that Government could not afford to pay the expected $375M in severance pay. “As far as I’m aware, those that were given that option during this period of transition – and opted to come out of the industry and not remain as workers to go to Uitvlugt – they were paid their severance. That option having been taken at the time, made those that remain still employees of the company,” Ramjattan explained.

Interrupted at this point by visibly upset workers, he emphasised that there is also a problem of financing, since the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) is in an almost bankrupt state. “Those that got the severance payment at the appropriate time, we had to pay $339M in severance payment. GuySuCo is practically bankrupt. The figure now for those who would want (severance payment) is going to be $375M more,” he detailed.

He elaborated that if workers of the redundant Wales Estate were to receive severance packages and not go to work at the Uitvlugt Estate it would cause Uitvlugt to collapse; but one impassioned resident informed the crowd of his experience at Uitvlugt Estate, and of questions regarding the availability of work there. The resident said he had gone to Uitvlugt, only to be given menial tasks to perform, or alternatively told to clean drains or scrub steps. Voice breaking with emotion, the man lamented his impoverished state since closure of the Wales Estate.

Ministers Hughes and Ramjattan reminded the crowd of the billions of dollars which have been invested into GuySuCo since this Government took office, but the consensus among the crowd was that these massive investments never reached the ordinary workers. Against the backdrop of claims that there was no fiscal space, sugar workers reminded the Ministers that, in 2015, they had taken a retroactive raise of pay, in some cases by 50 per cent. In response, Ramjattan retorted that the amount they paid themselves – a figure he put at $28M – was too small to compare with what is now required to pay severance.

Walkout

Throughout the afternoon’s proceedings, workers were clearly in a belligerent mood, as they remained opposed to the Government’s reluctance to pay the severance packages based on macro-economic reasons. Emotions boiled over when a member of the crowd called for police intervention if the workers did not calm down. At that point, a section of the gathering got up en masse and exited the proceedings to protest on the road for their severance payments.

The frustrated workers as they walked out of the proceedings

This publication was able to speak with a few of those disaffected workers. Many expressed worry for their families and their livelihoods, while most were clearly unwilling to travel the distance from Wales to Uitvlugt.

According to one factory worker, a Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU) representative, while factory workers are expected to collect their severance payments, the cane harvesters have been unjustly neglected in this regard. He made it clear that protest actions would continue until all categories of workers entitled to severance are so paid.

“Our biggest concern is that the Minister of Agriculture declared that Wales Estate would be closing on 31 December, so people need to move on with their lives. You close the estate, you giving one set of people severance and you denying the cane harvesters severance. The people have mortgages, families (and) they have things to do,” he contended.

“It’s wrong!” he declared. “The people are entitled to their severance and they’re playing politics with the people’s lives. GuySuCo has had no wage increases in 2015 and 2016. From the time they go into power, they took 50 percent (increase). Since December these people aren’t working, and they’re entitled, so we will continue to protest until they have (it). Give the people their severance! We don’t have to be here picketing!” he declared.

Already up in arms about not being paid their Annual Percentage Increases (API), Wales’ workers embarked on protests that have been consistent for over a year. It was only on March 10, 2017 that Wales cane harvesters, transporters and their families protested outside of the Ministry of the Presidency. They then moved to outside of the National Assembly, where a sitting of the country’s legislators was in progress.

Final Severance paid

Minister of Agriculture, Noel Holder

Meanwhile, the government in a released statement after the meeting announced that the final severance pay for sugar workers were issued yesterday.

According to the government release,”Three hundred and eighty nine (389) sugar workers who have been affected by the Wales Sugar estate transition process received finalised severance pay cheques today [yesterday].”

The final redundancy cheques were to have been issued yesterday afternoon, Minister Holder said, according to the release.

Government had announced the end of sugar operations at Wales Estate in early 2016, citing costs as the main factor for the estate’s closure. It was later disclosed that rice would be cultivated as part of diversification plans for the Wales Estate.

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