APNU+AFC’s closure of sugar estates ‘a most callous and unconscionable act’ – Finance Minister

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In his feature address today during the virtual launch of the International Labour Organisation (ILO)- sponsored study on the Socio-Economic Impact of the  Closure of Guyana Sugar Corporation (GUYSUCO) Sugar Estates on Sugar Workers in Guyana, Senior Finance Minister in the Office of the President with Responsibility for Finance, Dr. Ashni Singh expressed disgust at the A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance for Change’s (APNU/AFC’s) decision to close sugar estates leaving thousands on the breadline and the Coalition’s failure to acknowledge the socio-economic impact of the act.   

The Senior Finance Minister who addressed the forum on behalf of President Dr Irfaan Ali said the move by the then Administration was one which affected the lives of sugar workers tremendously leaving many of the workers suffering and experiencing hardship.

“The closure of Wales, East Demerara, Rose Hall and Skeldon estates in 2016 and 2017 under the APNU/AFC Administration was a most callous and unconscionable act committed against workers, including thousands of persons working in the industry as well as tens of thousands living in communities that depend on the industry, resulting in social and economic hardships in rural Demerara and Berbice, with rippling effects throughout Guyana,” Minister Singh reiterated.

“What was worse, this was undertaken without the benefit of any proper socio-economic analysis and conflicted with the APNU/AFC-sponsored Commission of Inquiry (COI) which did not recommend the closure of any estates. Approximately 7,000 sugar workers were placed on the breadline, resulting in grave hardships to these workers and their families- thousands of small and micro-business devastated as their livelihoods were intricately linked to these estates,” the Minister added.

He recalled that sugar cane production played an integral role in Guyana’s development since time immemorial with the cultivation of sugar cane and sugar production paralleling the country’s economic history and being instrumental in shaping its demography.

“The industry once had the distinction of being the largest foreign exchange earner and employer and has sustained generations of Guyanese especially those of rural Guyana. Even today the rural economy is still integrally linked to sugar production,” Minister Singh reminded.

On this note he said Government welcomed the commissioning of the study by the ILO which is being undertaken by Dr. Thomas B. Singh, a well-known academic, in collaboration with the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU).

It was recounted that the turmoil for the sugar workers and the sector commenced in February 2016 when the field workers of the Wales Estate were given a three-day ultimatum by GUYSUCO to either accept severance, be transferred to Uitvlugt Estate, or be dismissed. Despite being later rescinded thorough the efforts of their Union, the services of the workers were terminated when the estate closed on 31 December 2016. Similarly, the workers of East Demerara, Rose Hall and Skeldon Sugar Estates faced the same fate, with their services all terminated on 29 December 2017.

The Senior Finance Minister alluded to the fact that the then Government made no provisions for the displaced sugar workers with even severance payments guaranteed by law being denied and delayed resulting in the sugar workers resorting to the Courts to fight for the payments to be honoured.

“Further, the three remaining estates were starved of investment and resulted in sugar production reaching its lowest ever level. This left approximately 7000 workers on the breadline with no viable alternative options for employment in a struggle against the APNU/AFC government while still having to pay mortgages and importantly, support their families. Some were not able to receive their final severance payments until 2020,” the Minister recalled.

He noted that the report highlighted a decline in weekly household income for persons affected and that to appreciate the total impact, the average number of dependents was 5.3 with the average age of the respondents being 50 years old and many advanced in age for being considered for new employment.

Minister Singh however assured attendees at the launch that Government is in the process of developing a master plan for each estate that will guide the future development of the industry, adding that the master plan would seek to restore the socio-economic balance of the sugar belt through recapitalisation of the industry, promoting product diversification and value-added products as well as agro-energy.

“Among the elements that are being considered within this master plan is the redirecting of GUYSUCO’s efforts towards an optimised product mix, moving away from the current low value bulk-sugar market. This is high on the agenda and it is anticipated that there could be a quadrupling in sales from packaged sugar market both locally and internationally over the next five years. This would require the expansion of the Blairmont and Enmore Packaging Plants,” Minister Singh stated.

He noted that ‘these measures are in line with the recommendations of the study, for there to be diversification of the economy in a way to counterbalance the price volatility that characterizes commodity markets.’

With the report recommending the need for assistance to the affected workers and their families for the avoidance of poverty traps, Minister Singh indicated that the Government is cognizant that this is the reality faced by these workers and is, therefore, working hard to restore their livelihood.

“The sugar industry still has an important contribution to make to Guyana. Our government is committed to the revitalisation and restructuring of the sugar industry to support a diversified and modernised sector so as to ensure its sustainability and economic viability. We have begun to take steps to recapitalise the industry, with a $7 billion injection in 2020 and an additional $2 billion budgeted in 2021 for critical capital works. We envisage a sugar industry which shall continue to contribute to national development, to restoring livelihoods and boosting the rural economy,” Minister Singh concluded as he thanked all involved in the study and expressed appreciation to the ILO for supporting it.