By Shemuel Fanfair
It is approaching one year since the Wales Sugar Estate on the West Bank of Demerara ceased operating on December 31, 2016, and the distance between several former workers and the payment of severance packages is seemingly miles apart.
After some 9 months, the High Court is yet to call the matter for hearing. In the meanwhile, former workers residing at Wales and contiguous communities continue to decry the magnitude of challenges that have befallen them because of a prolonged lack of consistent employment. These issues were highlighted on the sidelines of a Christmas cheer and donation event held at the Wales Community Centre Ground on Sunday.
Cane worker Azad Ally, a father of three, was sitting on a bench speaking with former colleagues when this publication approached him. With his two fingers supporting the lower part of his face, Ally repeatedly highlighted that he has been unable to find steady employment. He said that while he was able to get some work for the holidays, he is afraid that once the holidays are over, this source of income would be completely depleted.
“Some cane cutters going (to) Uitvlugt, but we didn’t choose to go there, and we really need our money. Since the estate close down, me nah get a permanent job… Some people employing you holiday time, but when the holiday season done, they laying you off….I work 17 years (with GuySuCo); since I was 16. I get take on at Wales in rodent control (department), then I take transfer and go and chop cane,” the former worker observed.
Having underscored that Government should pay more attention to the plight of workers, Ally pointed to the shifting dynamics within the family structure.
“This ain’t fair, because we hear some of them managers getting pay-off, but what happen to we? Is like this Government doesn’t have a heart for cane cutters, especially at Wales Estate. Right now only me wife working,” he disclosed.
Another worker who also is awaiting severance told this publication that his wife is currently the principal breadwinner in his home. He said that at times of argument, he is subjected to statements which remind him of his employment status.
“All like how I am not working, sometime you hearing wrong talk and all kind ah thing,” the former sugar worker, who declined to be identified, noted.
Former tug captain at the estate, Gordon Thomas, commenting on the overall finances of workers, said Government operatives are more concerned with their own needs, as opposed to those of workers.
“Last year was bad, and this year made it worse, because people are not earning. People expecting to get their severance because they lay-off people. The President said that people come first, but it doesn’t look like people come first; it shows like the Cabinet comes first and the ministers, because the workers continue suffering. 2015, no increase; 2016, no increase; 2017 no increase. How do you expect the people to survive?” pondered Thomas, a vocal critic of the decisions that have affected sugar workers.
The former worker observed that the remaining workers, “cannot survive” on 2014 wages and salaries, and he called on Government to urgently address their plight.
Sixty-year-old Bopaul Sugdeo also pointed to the “stress” that some workers might have encountered if they had opted to take up work several miles away at Uitvlugt Estate, West Coast Demerara. Workers had contended that they cannot be compelled to travel beyond 10 miles from their previous working place, and demanded severance on those grounds.
“Before they closed Wales, they should have opened some other industry that the people could work. It is stressful for workers to go to Uitvlugt…” Sugdeo stressed.
Albert Vieira, 61, said he received his pension the same year that the Estate ended operations. He noted that the closure, as predicted, has seen wide-reaching negative effects in the surrounding communities.
“The people not getting work! Nuff of them went fisheries, they worked two morning because they had market…now de market suspend, they coming home. They not getting jobs! Work not circulating, money not circulating, we don’t have any factory that the people could go and work.”
Vieira recalled that he was able to build his life from the earnings he had obtained from the entity, having started working there over 40 years ago.
“I worked with the Estate since I was 16 years old, from 1972; and I get everything from there. I married, feed my children, and my son and grandchildren worked at the Estate. Up to now my son did not get payoff…,” he noted.
Sugar worker Vishnu Jailall, on behalf of his fellow unpaid employees, had sent a signed petition to President David Granger in July 2017, urging him to ensure that the Guyana Sugar Corporation (GuySuCo) meets its legal obligations to provide the aggrieved workers with their severance benefits.
President Granger, in a responding letter to the petition in early August, acknowledged the concerns of the workers and had further observed that Agriculture Minister Noel Holder would have tendered a response to the former employees. It was reported that the minister has not responded as yet to the President’s commitment.
The Wales Estate closure was seen as a cost-saving measure due to billions of dollars that were allocated to the declining sugar industry. There has since been the scaling down of other estates across the country. Over 3000 sugar workers across the Enmore, Skeldon and Rose Hall estates have been given letters of redundancy, informing that their services have been terminated.