By Samuel Sukhnandan
Canada’s largest Private Sector trade union, Unifor, has expressed deep concerns over Government’s handling of the sugar industry, particularly when it comes to ensuring that dismissed sugar workers are given their severance package in full.
Director for Human Rights and International Department at Unifor, Mohamad Alsadi, told this media group on the sidelines of a one-day conference titled “Sugar – too big to fail” on Tuesday at the Grand Coastal Hotel, which they sponsored, that it is Unifor’s hope that Government act quickly to address the workers concerns.
“I have never seen a Government that does something as little as taking someone’s severance, especially after losing their jobs. So, for us, this is a big issue. I mean if this was in Canada, I can assure that they could have gone to jail. It’s serious stuff. So, the Government needs to take this seriously,” the Unifor official said.
Alsadi said his Union has had a longstanding relationship with many trade unions, including the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union (GAWU). He said it was important that not only Unifor sponsor the event but attend it to get a chance to listen directly from workers and representatives from both sides of Government.
“Obviously today’s [Tuesday’s] conference was important for me and for our president to hear directly from the workers. We were here last year and we did go to some of the estates and met with some of the workers but hearing today from the Minister of State (Joseph Harmon) and the Opposition obviously there are different stories, two different point of views,” he added.
The Unifor official said they are saddened by what was presented and the sufferings being faced by the thousands of sugar workers that have been put on the breadline. He committed to working closely with Guyana’s trade unions in general and do all that they can to help.
According to him, the main goal is to help save the sugar industry.
“So we are going to work with them in solidarity and do all we can and hopefully they will be able to sort out some of the outstanding issues for sugar workers because people have families, communities are devastated and that needs to be fixed.”
Meanwhile, President of Unifor Jerry Dias told the attendees at the conference that it is incomprehensible that Government would move to close the number one industry in Guyana, without first carrying out an impact assessment on how people’s lives would be affected by the closure.
On that note, Dias said to workers and union heads that now is the time for them to “fight back” and take a road of “least resistance.” He labelled Minister of State Joseph Harmon’s speech as an “economic debate” rather than a presentation on a way forward for the industry.
Harmon, who represented the Government, did not provide any assurance of a timeframe within which the final severance payments will be made. He hinted that GAWU and National Association of Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Employees (NACCIE) were at the table when the issue of severance was discussed.
On the other hand, however, Opposition Leader Dr Bharrat Jagdeo, who also addressed the conference, did not back down on this issue. In fact, Jagdeo observed that the Minister failed to provide a definitive answer as to when final severance payments will be made to those who are still owed from all the now closed sugar estates.
The former Head of State renewed calls for Government to honour its obligation and comply with the laws of Guyana and pay over the full severance payments.
Some 7000 sugar workers were dismissed on December 29, 2017, without severance being paid “on termination” as required by the law to all of them. Severance was paid in part to over 4000 of the 7000 dismissed sugar workers.
The Termination of Employment and Severance Pay Act stipulates that workers who are made redundant must be paid severance upon termination.
Meanwhile, Opposition Member of Parliament (MP) Indra Chandarpaul used the opportunity to call on Government to provide subsidies (water and electricity) to the dismissed sugar workers. She said this obtains in mining communities where Bauxite workers were laid off and there should not be any difficulty in implementing same.
FITUG President Carvil Duncan also urged the GAWU to pass a resolution that would seek to ensure that retrenched workers would be the first to be reemployed in the sugar industry, and demand that GuySuCo put a timeframe in which to pay severance.
At the end of the conference, Unifor announced further support to GAWU by launching a programme through the union’s Social Justice Fund at the tune of Cdn$44,000.
The programme will see 120 community coordinators being trained in six sugar estates to further the discussion on the future of the country’s sugar sector.
The coordinators will also work to increase community involvement and workers participation in the restructuring process and to improve conditions for agriculture workers.